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Fire hazard fears prompt removal of thousands of smart meters in Ontario - General news - NewsLocker
Ontario's Electrical Safety Authority is directing local utilities to replace a certain model of smart meter as a preventative step after reviewing reports of problematic metres in Saskatchewan.
by Zachary Siegel @ Slate Articles
Thu Dec 21 14:59:32 PST 2017
America is one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, and for the second year in a row, our life expectancy has dropped. The drop was small—just 1.2 months, the same as last year’s—and in the context of the past several decades, appears as more of a stall on an otherwise steadily growing trend line. What’s the cause? A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics pins the blame on the unrelenting rise in opioid overdoses.
Fatal drug overdoses spiked to more than 63,000 in 2016, up from 52,400 in 2015. The vast majority of overdoses—42,200 of them, or 120 a day—are opioid-related. The most alarming jump, and nearly all of the increase, came from a doubling in the category of synthetic opioids, largely driven by illicitly manufactured fentanyl, said to be 50 times more potent than heroin. If you’re east of the Mississippi, it’s increasingly hard to find heroin that isn’t contaminated with fentanyl.
One bit of good news is that deaths from prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone appear to be plateauing, after rising at a pace of 13 percent annually from 1999 to 2009 (this year it increased by just 3 percent). This decline is perhaps attributable to the fact that faced with a ballooning problem, public health officials have deliberately cut back on opioid prescriptions. Most addictions linked to these pills are likely due to easy access rather than the prescription recipients becoming addicted, but it’s promising to see the trend start to slow down. (It’s also worth acknowledging that the crackdown has had unintended side effects for chronic pain patients.)
Overall though, we’re not doing nearly enough to combat the opioid crisis. The president, for example, would like to solve it by simply getting more people to say no to drugs. In reality, it requires much more robust and complex solutions. On the harm-reduction side, America still has zero operational safe consumption sites, which provide a sterile and medically supervised space for drug users to inject their drugs. (No one has ever died inside one of these spaces, which do exist outside of the U.S.) Naloxone, the only antidote that reverses opioid overdoses, is priced out of reach for many communities to widely distribute it. Local communities are fighting tooth-and-nail to distribute sterile syringes, a public health intervention proven to reduce the transmission of HIV, Hepatitis C, and other bloodborne diseases.
We’re also failing to provide better treatment for people struggling with addiction. When Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, he freed up a measly $57,000 in funds—less than $1 per fatal overdose victim. Medication treatments like buprenorphine and methadone—the only FDA-approved drugs proven to cut the risk of fatal overdoses by more than half—remain unused by the majority of addiction treatment providers. Meanwhile, Republicans are doing their utmost to roll back health care and undermine access to mental health care treatment, an important piece of the puzzle for opioid users.
The decrease in lifespan may be the result of one specific, vulnerable slice of the population dying far too young. But it is all of our concern, and right now we are falling down on the job.
by admin @ Clare Island
Wed Jan 31 02:57:45 PST 2018
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October 10, 2012 edition of the Campbell River Mirror
by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles
Fri Jan 12 14:09:16 PST 2018
The Trump administration announced plans last week to lift Obama-era prohibitions on offshore drilling, potentially opening up thousands of miles of coastline to companies interested in extracting oil and natural gas from the ocean floor. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, whose department oversees and regulates coastline leasing, called the five-year plan “a new path for energy dominance in America,” which is a strange way to refer to an investment in nonrenewable resources with a finite future.
Environmental groups, Democrats, and even some Republicans swiftly decried the move for its potential to devastate marine ecosystems and the health and safety of coastal communities. Governors from New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, California, Oregon, and Washington all oppose offshore drilling, and all requested exclusion from the plan last year.
Interestingly, Zinke decided to remove one state from the new standard—one that didn’t even originally ask for an exemption. But after the announcement, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, an ally of the Trump administration’s, released a statement saying, “I have asked to immediately meet with Secretary Zinke to discuss the concerns I have with this plan and the crucial need to remove Florida from consideration. My top priority is to ensure that Florida’s natural resources are protected.”
On Tuesday, Zinke granted him his wish, exempting Florida’s coastlines from offshore drilling. Zinke released a statement that called Scott “a straightforward leader that can be trusted,” and declared support for “the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.”
The problem with this explanation, though, is that everything he says to justify Florida’s exemption applies to every other coastal state. Florida is certainly special in uniquely Floridian ways, but warm beaches that attract tourists and generate in-state revenue are everywhere. There’s the Jersey Shore; Rehoboth Beach in Delaware; Charleston, South Carolina; the Outer Banks in North Carolina; Virginia Beach; Los Angeles and San Diego, and on and on and on.
Now, state leaders are forcing Zinke into a corner with his own words.
Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another Trump ally, made it clear he wanted an exemption for his state as well.
What could be going on here? Perhaps this is a case of not-in-my-backyard exceptionalism. After all, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, where he’s absconded to 10 times since inauguration, sits on the beach in Palm Beach, Florida. Would he want to deal with an unsightly view and accompanying cacophony of an offshore drill platform? Probably not! Not to mention the fact that offshore drilling produces a pretty disgusting slew of pollutants, including muds, brine wastes, and runoff water that threaten to decimate the pristine beauty you’d expect at a beachside home.
If Zinke can’t find a real reason Florida should be exempt and other states should not, the entire plan might be dead in the water anyway. Good riddance.
by Torie Bosch @ Slate Articles
Thu Dec 07 09:54:00 PST 2017
Have you seen the viral video of the man who reportedly pulled onto the side of Highway 1, near La Conchita, California, to save a rabbit from the devastating Thomas fire?
The hero in a hoodie put his own life at risk to save a widdle wabbit from the big fire. The common response to this has been that his actions should renew our faith in humanity. “Emotional Man Becomes Viral Hero When He Rescues Rabbit From California Wildfires,” crows a People headline.
In these dark times, I understand the tendency to turn to cute animals and stories of acts of kindness for pick-me-ups. But trying to save wild animals from a fire is a stupid thing to do. We should not reward this behavior, and we should not encourage others to do the same.
La Conchita is, according to the Los Angeles Times, a “small seaside town” that is home to “a few hundred people.” An evacuation order was already in place when the fire reached it. As the Times said Thursday morning:
Shortly before 2 a.m., flames rolled down the hillside just off the 101 Freeway, near Faria Beach Park, before jumping northbound lanes and igniting weeds in the center divider. Drivers swerved to avoid the flickering flames, with smoke making it hard to see farther than a few feet at times.
Visibility problems triggered a full shutdown of the freeway, according to the California Highway Patrol’s online incident log.
Authorities said they’d been to the neighborhood—where there’s only one way in and one way out—twice ordering people to leave, telling them it was too dangerous to stay.
According to KABC, the video was captured by a news photographer Wednesday night. “The man, who did not want to be interviewed, pulled over and was panicking as the rabbit he chased hopped right near large flames,” KABC reported. We see him jumping around in the clip, wearing a hoodie and shorts, as cars drive by. He gets closer to the rabbit, backs away from the flames, and then finally scoops it up and pulls it into his chest. “He’s saving an animal,” someone says off-screen, awestruck.
We don’t know what happened to this man before or after his rabbit rescue. He may have been in shock, or he may have been traumatized. I certainly have no idea how I would react if I were within spitting distance of a wildfire and spotted a cute animal. (OK, I have a small idea: I probably would not have tried to save it, because I harbor an intense fear that I will forget to stop, drop, and roll if the need ever actually arises.) Either way, I don’t blame the man in the video.
But it is irresponsible to spread this video widely and cast him as a hero. If he had caught fire, wouldn’t the bystanders or people in cars passing by have had to help him? Doing so would have put them at risk, too. Several people could have ended up injured or worse because he tried to save a (wild!) rabbit. Or what if no one felt safe enough to help, and he was severely burned or died as a result? The people who were nearby would have likely felt tremendous guilt, possibly for the rest of their lives. Either way, it could have required response from emergency services that are already stretched thin.
I tend to prefer animals to humans. (To be clear, that’s a flaw of mine, not a dig at my fellow humans.) But the fact is that human lives need to take precedence over animal lives—particularly wild animals’ lives. And what happens to the rabbit now anyway? Keeping it in a cage forever wouldn’t be fair. Does it get let go somewhere in Southern California so it can end up in another wildfire? It’s hard enough for people to know what to do with their pets when they are forced to evacuate a natural disaster. (Update, Dec. 7, 5:30 p.m. EST: In a piece published Thursday afternoon, LiveScience points out that “an animal flitting around at the edge of a fire might not need saving at all. In fact, it might have a very good reason for being there.”)
The biggest problem with this video is not the story of this individual man and this individual rabbit, though. It’s that our bizarre fetishizing of animals on the internet could prompt others to attempt the same—to stop in the middle of an evacuation to save an animal. That puts not only the would-be rescuers at risk, but also firefighters—who have more important things to do—and other evacuees. That prospect should make us all hopping mad.
Is there anything you can do to help animals fleeing wildfires? A widely circulated meme says that people on the fringes of fire should leave water outside (and bring pets indoors) in case animals need to stop to quench their thirst. But even that might be ill-advised: In October, California Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Peter Tira told SFGate not to bother.
“If you encounter a wild animal in our neighborhood, leave it alone,” says Tira. “Fire or no fire, just let the animals be.”
Tira says wild animals, like deer, foxes, coyotes and other creatures likely affected by the Wine Country fires, have the ability to adapt and survive, and leaving buckets of water out for them is not only unnecessary, but unadvisable.
“Fire is something animals have to deal with constantly,” said Tira.
And increasingly, so do humans. So let the animals take care of themselves. Even in the video, that’s what the rabbit is trying to do: run out from the flames.
by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles
Fri Jan 12 13:35:57 PST 2018
Facebook is shifting tactics in the war on fake news. A few weeks ago, in the quiet lead-up to the major revamp of its news feed announced Thursday, the company made another tweak to what users see: It said it would no longer mark bogus headlines with a red-flag warning, as had been its practice since the end of 2016. Previously, these “Disputed” tags showed up beneath any story that had been rated false by at least two independent, fact-checking organizations. Now those tags have been replaced by something less intrusive—one or more “Related Articles,” supplied by fact-checkers, that offer context for (and perhaps debunking of) the headline’s claims.
The new system should have some clear advantages: First, it gives the checkers greater flexibility and room to challenge stories that are not entirely, 100 percent made up; second, it will speed things up, because Facebook will no longer require two assessments before it starts to show corrective facts; third, it reduces the number of clicks or taps required before a user sees specific fact-check information. But taken as a whole, the change is somewhat mystifying and maybe even ill-advised. Its design appears to be based (at least in part) on the science of post-truth—and on the flashy but fishy notion that debunking myths only makes them stronger.
This idea, that addressing lies with facts may backfire, has been widely shared in both the media and social science literature over the past 10 years. Now it’s cited by the team at Facebook in explaining its approach to fake news: “Academic research on correcting misinformation has shown that putting a strong image, like a red flag, next to an article may actually entrench deeply held beliefs,” wrote product manager Tessa Lyons on Dec. 20, 2017. A concurrent Medium post, from three more Facebookers on the project, also mentioned this research. And Facebook’s CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, alluded to the backfire effect in his manifesto on building an “informed community” from last February: “Research shows that some of the most obvious ideas,” he wrote, “like showing people an article from the opposite perspective, actually deepen polarization.”
The problem is, the backfire effect that so worries Facebook may not exist at all. The Medium post described the above links to a review of debunking research from 2012, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, which indeed contains a section, titled “Making Things Worse,” on the risk of backfire. But more recent efforts to study this phenomenon more carefully—large-scale, preregistered studies using thousands of participants—have turned up little evidence in its favor. That’s not to say that backfires never, ever happen. It’s possible that a red-flag warning on Facebook could end up entrenching false beliefs for certain users under certain circumstances. But, according to the latest science (which I reviewed in detail for Slate last week), this danger has been greatly overstated.
In fact, if we’re going by the academic research literature, there’s good reason to believe that Facebook’s abandoned red-flag warnings were somewhat useful and effective. Last May, Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan and his students conducted a preregistered study of news feed warnings on a sample of about 3,000 adults. The researchers showed each participant a half a dozen fake-news headlines—e.g. “Trump Plagiarized the Bee Movie for Inaugural Speech”—sometimes adding a red flag of just the kind that Facebook had been using to indicate the story was disputed by independent fact-checkers. Then they asked their subjects to rate these headlines on a four-point scale from “Not at all accurate” to “Very accurate.” Nyhan and his students found a nice effect: In the absence of a warning flag, 29 percent of their subjects said the bogus headlines were either “somewhat accurate” or “very accurate,” but when the flag was shown, that proportion of fake-news believers dropped by about one-third, to 19 percent.
Another very similar study—from Yale’s David Rand and Gordon Pennycook—was posted in September 2017. In that one, researchers showed real- and fake-news headlines, with or without red-flag warnings, to more than 5,000 participants. Like Nyhan and his students, Rand and Pennycook found the warnings worked, at least a bit: Subjects described the tagged headlines as being slightly less accurate, on average, than the ones that did not have a warning. (The warnings might have been even more effective, Pennycook told me in an interview this week, if Facebook had put them just above the fake-news headlines instead of just below them.)
Rand and Pennycook’s research did have one crucial caveat. According to their study, the presence of a warning flag on one fake-news story could make other, untagged stories seem more accurate. They referred to this as an “implied truth effect.” For certain subjects—especially young adults or those who supported Donald Trump—the absence of a fact-check tag ended up seeming like a badge of credibility; it made them more believable. (Nyhan failed to find the same, but when the data from the two papers are combined, the effect appears to be there.) Given the disturbing scope of Facebook’s fake news problem, it’s hard to see how human-powered fact-checks could ever tag more than a fraction of the phony headlines on the site. And if the implied truth effect applied to all the others, the end result would be catastrophic.
But this concern must be squared with the results from Rand and Pennycook’s earlier study of the Facebook warnings, first posted last April. That one, which had a somewhat different design and about 1,000 subjects, confirmed the basic finding that red flags in the news feed lower people’s belief in fake-news headlines. It also showed that those warnings made subjects more skeptical overall—rather than more credulous—when it came to other, untagged headlines.
In a brief interview on Tuesday, I asked the members of the Facebook team whether and how their work was influenced by the academic research literature. User-experience researcher Grace Jackson said that the backfire effect is “something that we wanted to be aware of based on the academic literature,” but that “in our own research, it actually only happens extremely rarely.” She did not address the Rand and Pennycook papers but did mention that the team had been inspired by a 2015 paper from Leticia Bode and Emily Vraga, which, said Jackson, found that corrective information “worked really well” when presented in a format similar to the one that Facebook just rolled out.
For that study, Bode and Vraga showed students postings from a mocked-up Facebook news feed, including a bogus story claiming that genetically modified foods will make you sick. Students in one experimental condition saw a pair of “Related Links” below that item, showing refutations of the claim from Snopes.com and the American Medical Association. Bode and Vraga found that among the people who came into the study with the belief that GMOs are harmful, the related links helped to change their minds.
Facebook’s new approach, in which fact-check information gets presented as “Related Articles,” closely mirrors Bode and Vraga’s experimental treatment. Yet the 2015 paper is, in fact, equivocal in its results. In addition to the claims about the health effects of GMOs, Bode and Vraga also looked at fake-news headlines on a supposed link between vaccines and autism. In this latter case, they found no effect from their corrections. The “Related Links” from Snopes.com and the American Medical Association did not change believers’ attitudes.
Bode says it’s not clear why their treatment didn’t work for the myth about vaccines. It could be that the false belief is more established, so it’s harder to uproot. Or else it could be that the anti-vaxxer myth is more politicized and thus more amenable to motivated reasoning. The same ambiguity applies to Facebook’s efforts. Are the most dangerous fake-news stories in people’s news feeds like the ones about GMOs—and thus perhaps amenable to this format of debunking? Or are they like the ones about vaccines, where “Related Stories” might have no effect?
It’s also hard to know how much confidence one should have in extrapolating from the Bode and Vraga findings. Their study had about 500 subjects, but these were split across eight experimental conditions. And their positive result concerned just the subset of participants—about half, overall—who believed that GMOs will make you sick. That means they looked at subgroups of about several dozen people per condition. For the vaccines question, these sample sizes were smaller still. That’s not to say that Bode and Vraga got things wrong—only that their findings were preliminary and constrained by opportunity and cost. (In subsequent work, they’ve found similar results on the topic of GMOs.) If Facebook cared to know whether “Related Stories” really work to counter lies, the company could check the numbers for itself. Instead of citing modest research done by academics, its employees could, in theory, run something like the same experiment on 1 million Facebook users, or 10 million, or 100 million. Do “Related Articles” change behavior? Do red-flag warnings backfire? Is there an implied truth effect when not every article is tagged? If anyone will ever know the answer to those questions, it’s the team at Facebook.
In fact, they may already have those answers. In our conversation on Tuesday, I asked what they’ve found from their own analyses. Tessa Lyons, the product manager, only mentioned one result: When the team compared its new “Related Articles” format to the old red-flag warnings, they found that click-thru rates remained the same, while shares declined. In other words, users were just as likely to read the fake-news articles that appeared on their feeds but less likely to repost them for their friends. How much less likely? Lyons wouldn’t say. What about comparisons to baseline? How effective were either of these formats at reducing fake-news spread when compared to giving no fact-check information whatsoever? Again, Lyons wouldn’t say.
It’s possible Facebook has mined its vast supply of internal data and optimized its fake news–fighting tactics accordingly. As Bode points out, the company is full of very smart people, including many social science Ph.D.s. But if that were really true, then why bother with a smoke screen of citations to a wobbly academic research literature? Why not just say, “Look, we’ve crunched the numbers for ourselves, and this approach works best,” without sharing proprietary details?
Here’s another thought: It could be that the change from red-flag warnings to “Related Articles” isn’t really that important anyway. According to Lyons, the most effective way to slow these stories’ spread is to bury them on news feeds, and Facebook already does that. Once a story has been tagged as “false” in either system, it gets demoted by the Facebook algorithm and becomes much less likely to appear to users—Lyons says this intervention is the main driver in reducing a fake story’s reach by 80 percent. Links to “Related Articles” from third-party fact-checkers only come into play in those instances when the fake-news story does pop up in spite of its demotion. In other words, even if the fact-check links were quite effective, their real-world impact would be marginal.
This all raises an unnerving question: Given that both the red-flag warnings and “Related Articles” methods likely offer little more than a limp, second-line defense against fake news, why bother with them at all? If Facebook can demote these stories in its users’ feeds, such that their spread will be shrunk by 80 percent, then certainly it has the the power to eliminate them altogether. Indeed, the main takeaway from Thursday’s large announcement is that Facebook is adjusting its news feed to focus less on news overall—at least, less on news shared from publishers. (Individuals can still share whatever they want.) “We don’t want any ‘false news’ on Facebook,” said Lyons, using the company’s preferred name for the phenomenon.
The best way to accomplish this would be to pull stories from the site as soon as they’ve been identified as fakes. Instead of squeezing bogus headlines through tighter filters in the news feed algorithm, the site could just delete them. In practice, though, that would look a lot like censorship—a top-down decree about what’s true and what isn’t. (Lyons says items are removed this way only when they violate Facebook’s community standards.) So instead the company has staked out a middle ground, where fake news isn’t deleted; it’s disappeared.
That seems a little icky, too: If it isn’t censorship, then it’s certainly censorshipish. On the other hand, Facebook’s second-line approach—giving context for a bogus story, surrounding it with facts—has the benefit of seeming ethical and optimistic; it assumes that people care about the truth and that, all things being equal, they’ll tend to handle information in a responsible way. Of course, it may not work as well as disappearance at reducing shares and clicks. Of course, it may not work at all. But at least it sends a signal to the rest of us: Facebook wants to keep us as informed as possible.
Maybe this explains its making hay of a subtle shift from red-flag warnings to “Related Stories.” Whether this was based on solid social science or a careful audit of internal numbers, the story hinges on the feel-good notion that Facebook will bury lies with wholesome facts—and in a way we all can see. Here’s the ugly truth behind that curtain of transparency: If the social network wins its war against fake news, it will be driven by the secret, brutal engines of its code.
by Kurt Andersen @ Slate Articles
Wed Jan 10 14:04:11 PST 2018
Adapted from Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History copyright © 2017 by Kurt Andersen. With permission from the publisher, Random House. All rights reserved.
Forty-eight hours ago, after watching Oprah Winfrey give a terrific, rousing feminist speech on an awards show, millions of Americans instantly, giddily decided that the ideal 2020 Democratic nominee had appeared. An extremely rich and famous and exciting star and impresario—but one who seems intelligent and wise and kind, the non–Bizarro World version of the sitting president.
Some wet-blanketing followed immediately, among the best from the New York Times Magazine writer Thomas Chatterton Williams in an op-ed headlined “Oprah, Don’t Do It.” “It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr. Trump’s hallucinatory circus act,” he wrote. “Indeed, the magical thinking fueling the idea of Oprah in 2020 is a worrisome sign about the state of the Democratic Party.”
Despite the “magical thinking” reference, neither Williams nor other skeptics have seriously addressed the big qualm I have about the prospect of a President Winfrey: Perhaps more than any other single American, she is responsible for giving national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking, from pseudoscientific to purely mystical, fantasies about extraterrestrials, paranormal experience, satanic cults, and more. The various fantasies she has promoted on all her media platforms—her daily TV show with its 12 million devoted viewers, her magazine, her website, her cable channel—aren’t as dangerous as Donald Trump’s mainstreaming of false conspiracy theories, but for three decades she has had a major role in encouraging Americans to abandon reason and science in favor of the wishful and imaginary.
Oprah went on the air nationally in the 1980s, just as non-Christian faith healing and channeling the spirits of the dead and “harmonic convergence” and alternative medicine and all the rest of the New Age movement had scaled up. By the 1990s, there was a big, respectable, glamorous New Age counterestablishment. Marianne Williamson, one of the new superstar New Age preachers, popularized a “channeled” book of spiritual revelation, A Course in Miracles: The author, a Columbia University psychology professor who was anonymous until after her death in the 1980s, had claimed that its 1,333 pages were dictated to her by Jesus. Her basic idea was that physical existence is a collective illusion—”the dream.” Endorsed by Williamson, the book became a gigantic best-seller. Deepak Chopra had been a distinguished endocrinologist before he quit regular medicine in his 30s to become the “physician to the gods” in the Transcendental Meditation organization and in 1989 hung out his own shingle as wise man, author, lecturer, and marketer of dietary supplements.
Out of its various threads, the philosophy now had its basic doctrines in place: Rationalism is mostly wrongheaded, mystical feelings should override scientific understandings, reality is an illusion one can remake to suit oneself. The 1960s countercultural relativism out of which all that flowed originated mainly as a means of fighting the Man, unmasking the oppressive charlatans-in-charge. But now they had become mind-blowing ways to make yourself happy and successful by becoming the charlatan-in-charge of your own little piece of the universe. “It’s not just the interpretation of objective reality that is subjective,” according to Chopra. “Objective reality per se is a concept of reality we have created subjectively.”
Exactly how had Chopra and Williamson become so conspicuous and influential? They were anointed in 1992 and 1993 by Oprah Winfrey.
As I say, she is an ecumenical promoter of fantasies. Remember the satanic panic, the mass hysteria during the 1980s and early ’90s about satanists abusing and murdering children that resulted in the wrongful convictions of dozens of people who collectively spent hundreds of years incarcerated? Multiple Oprah episodes featured the celebrity “victims” who got that fantasy going. When a Christian questioner in her audience once described her as New Age, Winfrey was pissed. “I am not ‘New Age’ anything,” she said, “and I resent being called that. I don’t see spirits in the trees, and I don’t sit in the room with crystals.” Maybe not those two things specifically; she’s the respectable promoter of New Age belief and practice and nostrums, a member of the elite and friend to presidents, five of whom have appeared on her shows. New Age, Oprah-style, shares with American Christianities their special mixtures of superstition, selfishness, and a refusal to believe in the random. “Nothing about my life is lucky,” she has said. “Nothing. A lot of grace. A lot of blessings. A lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck.”
Most of the best-known prophets and denominational leaders in the New Age realm owe their careers to Winfrey. Her man Eckhart Tolle, for instance, whose books The Power of Now and A New Earth sold millions of copies apiece, is a successful crusader against reason itself. “Thinking has become a disease,” he writes, to be supplanted by feeling “the inner energy field of your body.” The two of them conducted a series of web-based video seminars in 2008.
New Age, because it’s so American, so utterly democratic and decentralized, has multiple sacred texts. One of the most widely read and influential is Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, emphatically placed in the canon by Winfrey as soon as it was published a decade ago. “I’ve been talking about this for years on my show,” Winfrey said during one of the author’s multiple appearances on Oprah. “I just never called it The Secret.”
The Secret takes the American fundamentals, individualism and supernaturalism and belief in belief, and strips away the middlemen and most of the pious packaging—God, Jesus, virtue, hard work rewarded, perfect bliss only in the afterlife. What’s left is a “law of attraction,” and if you just crave anything hard enough, it will become yours. Belief is all. The Secret’s extreme version of magical thinking goes far beyond its predecessors’. It is staggering. A parody would be almost impossible. It was No. 1 on the Times’s nonfiction list for three years and sold about 20 million copies.
“There isn’t a single thing that you cannot do with this knowledge,” the book promises. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, The Secret can give you whatever you want.” Because it’s a scientific fact.
The law of attraction is a law of nature. It is as impartial as the law of gravity. Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thoughts. … In the moment you ask, and believe, and know you already have it in the unseen, the entire universe shifts to bring it into the scene. You must act, speak, and think, as though you are receiving it now. Why? The universe is a mirror, and the law of attraction is mirroring back to your dominant thoughts. … It takes no time for the universe to manifest what you want. Any time delay you experience is due to your delay in getting to the place of believing.
To be clear, Byrne’s talking mainly not about spiritual contentment but things, objects, lovers, cash. “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts. … It is not your job to work out ‘how’ the money will come to you. It is your job to ask. … Leave the details to the Universe on how it will bring it about.” She warns that rationalism can neutralize the magic—in fact, awareness of the real world beyond one’s individual orbit can be problematic. “When I discovered The Secret, I made a decision that I would not watch the news or read newspapers anymore, because it did not make me feel good.”
Right around the time The Secret came out, habitués of its general vicinity started buzzing about the year 2012. Ancient Mesoamericans, people were saying, had predicted that in 2012—specifically, Dec. 21—humankind’s present existence would … transition, when the current 5,125-year-long period ends. New Age religion-makers, like American Protestants, now had their own ancient prophecy for their own dreams of something like a near-future Armageddon and supernaturally wonderful aftermath.
Winfrey ended the daily Oprah broadcasts in 2011, and a month before the final episode, she interviewed Shirley MacLaine for the millionth time and asked about 2012: “What’s gonna happen to us as a species?”
“We’re coming into an alignment,” MacLaine explained. “It is the first time in 26,000 years—36,000 years—26,000 years, I’m sorry, that this has occurred. … You have an alignment where this solar system is on direct alignment with the center of the galaxy. That carries with it a very profound electromagnetic frequency—”
“Vibration,” Winfrey interjected.
“… vibration,” MacLaine agreed, “and gravitational pull. Hence the weather. What does that do to consciousness? What does that do to our sense of reality?” It’s why people feel rushed and stressed, she said.
Winfrey asked her audience for an amen: “Are you all feeling that?” They were.
“So my stuff isn’t really that far out. But what’s actually happening, Oprah,” MacLaine continued, explaining how the relevant astrology proved the supernatural inflection point was exactly 620 days away. “It’s the end of that 26,000-year procession of the equinox” and “the threshold of a new beginning. And I think what this pressure, this kind of psychic, spiritual pressure we’re all feeling is about, is that your internal soul is telling you ‘Get your act together.’”
* * *
It’s one thing to try to experience more peace of mind or feel in sync with a divine order. Mixing magical thinking with medical science and physiology, however, can get problematic. A generation after its emergence as a thing hippies did, alternative medicine became ubiquitous and mainstream. As with so many of the phenomena I discuss in my book Fantasyland, it’s driven by nostalgia and anti-establishment mistrust of experts, has quasi-religious underpinnings, and comes in both happy and unhappy versions.
And has been brought to you by Oprah Winfrey.
In 2004, a very handsome heart surgeon, prominent but not famous, appeared on Oprah to promote a book about alternative medicine. His very name—Dr. Oz!—would be way too over-the-top for a character in a comic novel. After Harvard, Mehmet Oz earned both an M.D. and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, then became a top practitioner and professor of heart surgery at Columbia University and director of its Cardiovascular Institute. Timing is everything—young Dr. Oz arrived at Columbia right after it set up its Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the 1990s.
Soon he was bringing an “energy healer” into his operating room, who placed her hands on patients as he performed surgery, and inviting a reporter to watch. According to Dr. Oz, who is married to a reiki master, such healers have the power to tune in to their scientifically undetectable “energies” and redirect them as necessary while he’s cutting open their hearts. When the New Yorker’s science reporter Michael Specter told Oz he knew of no evidence that reiki works, the doctor agreed—“if you are talking purely about data.” For people in his magical-thinking sphere, purely about data is a phrase like mainstream and establishment and rational and fact, meaning elitist, narrow, and blind to the disruptive truths. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” Oz told Specter, then added a kicker directly from the relativist 1960s: “I have my religion and you have yours.”
After that first appearance on Oprah, he proceeded to come on her show 61 more times, usually wearing surgical scrubs. In 2009, Winfrey’s company launched the daily Dr. Oz show, on which he pushes miracle elixirs, homeopathy, imaginary energies, and psychics who communicate with the dead. He regularly uses the words miracle and magic. A supplement extracted from tamarind “could be the magic ingredient that lets you lose weight without diet and exercise.” Green coffee beans—even though “you may think that magic is make-believe”—are actually a “magic weight-loss cure,” a “miracle pill [that] can burn fat fast. This is very exciting. And it’s breaking news.” For a study in the British medical journal BMJ, a team of experienced evidence reviewers analyzed Dr. Oz’s on-air advice—80 randomly chosen recommendations from 2013. The investigators found legitimate supporting evidence for fewer than half. The most famous physician in the United States, the man Oprah Winfrey branded as “America’s doctor,” is a dispenser of make-believe.
Oz has encouraged viewers to believe that vaccines cause autism and other illnesses—as did Winfrey on her show before him. In 2007, long after the fraudulent 1998 paper that launched the anti-vaccine movement had been discredited, she gave an Oprah episode over to the actress Jenny McCarthy, a public face of the movement. That was where McCarthy gave the perfect defense of her credentials: “The University of Google is where I got my degree from!”
If Ronald Reagan became the first king of his magical-thinking realm in the 1980s, Oprah Winfrey became the first queen of hers in the following decade. Like Reagan, I believe she’s both sincere and a brilliant Barnumesque promoter of a dream world.
Discussing my book a couple of months ago on Sam Harris’ podcast Waking Up, I was arguing that the realm of Fantasyland is, when it comes to politics, highly asymmetrical—the American right much more than the left has given itself over to belief in the untrue and disbelief in the true, a fact of which President Donald Trump is a stark embodiment.
“Who would be, and could there be,” I asked Harris, “a Trump of the left that people on the left would, against their better judgment say ‘She’s a kook, and she’s terrible in this way, but she believes in socialized medicine, and this, and that—I’m going with her.’ To what degree and under what circumstances could that happen? It’s hard to imagine the equivalent, but I’m willing to accept that we might have to make those choices eventually.”
Such as who, Harris asked. Well, I replied, “people talk very seriously about Oprah Winfrey being a potential Democratic nominee for president. Is that my Trump moment, [like] what honest Republicans had to do with Donald Trump, and decide ‘No, I can’t abide this’ and became Never Trumpers? Would I be a Never Oprah person? That will be a test for me.”
I’ve been encouraged these past three days by the “whoa, Oprah” reactions among some liberals—as I was by the Republican resistance to Trump during the first six or nine months of his candidacy. When she starts polling ahead of all the mere politicians seeking the Democratic nomination, let alone winning primaries, we’ll see how stalwart the reality-based, anti-celebrity, naysaying faction remains.
by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles
Thu Nov 16 15:03:10 PST 2017
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week it’s reversing a ban against importing remains of elephants hunted legally in Zimbabwe and Zambia, which means that starting Friday, these “trophies” can be brought back into the U.S. as long as hunters apply for and receive the correct permits.
The FWS argues that the reversal of the ban, first imposed by the Obama administration in 2014, will help create a revenue stream for pouring money back into conservation efforts to help elephants and other African animals, particularly those whose population statuses are currently threatened.
“Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve those species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation,” an FWS spokesperson told Slate. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the hunting and management programs for African elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia will enhance the survival of the species in the wild.”
Hunting is often a part of managed conservation efforts, and it often stirs a specific type of controversy. Unsurprisingly, many decried the new move as callous, and feared the move would facilitate a sharp increase in elephant hunting—legal and illegal alike. Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society, wrote a blog post asking what kind of message it sends that “poor Africans who are struggling to survive cannot kill elephants in order to use or sell their parts to make a living, but that it’s just fine for rich Americans to slay the beasts for their tusks to keep as trophies?”
But perhaps the main reason this decision rubbed people the wrong way is because Donald Trump’s sons are notorious for their elephant hunting.
It’s understandable to find the practice of hunting elephants for sport repulsive. It's also understandable to be suspicious of this change given everything happening in politics right now. But these loud missives don’t do justice to the nuanced factors that go into developing and implementing conservation efforts. When you considered the facts on the ground, lifting restrictions on elephant trophy bans isn’t necessarily a bad idea. In fact, it could be a good idea.
It’s true that the opening of trophy imports will probably encourage more legal hunting. That’s actually the point. Hunting is not an inherently bad thing for animal conservation. When hunting is legal and well-regulated, it can actually help keep animal populations in check and prevent them from overwhelming an ecosystem. That’s precisely why hunting white-tailed deer is encouraged during hunting season in much of the U.S.
Now, African elephant populations don’t resemble white-tailed deer in North America. Deer are much more populous, and faster to reproduce. But it’s important to note that elephant populations are not in the dire straits they once were. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the African elephant species as “vulnerable,” not endangered, meaning population numbers or habitat range are less than satisfactory but can improve if measures are taken. One of those measures could be controlled hunting that shaves off individual numbers in the short term to create a bigger population growth in the long term.
Moreover, those populations experience different versions of stability depending on the country, and that “vulnerable” status doesn’t necessarily apply everywhere. According to the Great Elephant Census, the African savanna’s elephant population across 18 countries went down 30 percent from 2007 to 2014. But that’s only part of the picture. In 2014, Zimbabwe’s elephant populations tallied up to more than 82,000—an incredibly far cry from the 4,000 individuals counted up around 1900. The GEC numbers suggest the elephant population numbers for both Zimbabwe and Zambia are fairly stable.
And stability is key for the FWS. Historically speaking, the U.S. Department of the Interior has always paid more attention to local population stability than absolute numbers across the globe. In making this move for two countries, the FWS seems to be reinforcing an approach that’s tailored to regions rather than an entire continent.
The FWS’s official reasons for lifting the ban in Zimbabwe stem in part from what it says is an availability of new information that demonstrates a clearer understanding of African elephant populations in the country. The decision was also based on assessments of how revenue can be generated out of trophy imports and licenses, a new species management plan adopted by the government that will establish and enforce firm hunting quotas, and new regulatory mechanisms that should make it easier to track revenue generated from trophy imports (and limit corruption) while turning that money back over into conservation efforts. In sum, these changes have the potential to secure current elephant populations and help grow them in places where numbers are declining. (The same information on why the ban was lifted is not available with regard to Zambia.)
The FWS’s reasons are part of a larger argument that when a proper regulatory framework is implemented, conservation efforts actually thrive. A 2001 paper published in Science points to how legalizing trophy hunting in Zimbabwe has “doubled the area of the country under wildlife management relative to the 13% in state protected areas,” since the program at the time included private lands. “As a result, the area of suitable land available to elephants and other wildlife has increased, reversing the problem of habitat loss and helping to maintain a sustained population increase in Zimbabwe’s already large elephant population.” And considering how an elephant trophy fee could be anywhere from $4,000 to $18,500, the potential for revenue generated by trophy import permits could be a massive boon to both conservation projects and local communities alike
The problem, of course, is making sure those bureaucratic bodies actually work as they are meant to. There’s a totally fair case to make that corruption can detrimentally subvert whatever gains can be made off of trophy imports. And given the fact that there’s a military coup underway in Zimbabwe right now, it’s not clear how much confidence one should have in the government’s ability to enforce hunting laws. But in the broadest sense, this decision seems to reflect a reasonable reaction to the facts on the ground.
by Matthew Dessem @ Slate Articles
Wed Dec 06 20:07:56 PST 2017
It’s hard to keep track of all of the signs that we’re living in the Biblical End Times lately, but there are two recent, seemingly unrelated developments worthy of special notice. First, as the Miami Herald reports, snake hunter Jason Leon captured a 17-foot Burmese python in the Florida Everglades early Monday morning. The python is an invasive species which has been preying on small mammals in the area, and the South Florida Water Management District has been offering a bounty for these snakes; Leon’s snake is the largest caught in the hunt so far. It’s a really big snake:
Meanwhile, West Hawaii Today reports that Kealakekua resident Pamela Wang has discovered an avocado the size of a human head. The avocado, a mammoth example of the Daily 11 variety, weighed in at 5.23 pounds; if its weight is verified by Guinness, it will smash the previous world record for heaviest avocado, a now-puny-seeming 4 pounds, 13.2 ounces. According to Wang, half of one half of the avocado was sufficient to feed ten people. It’s a really big avocado:
Beyond the omens-and-portents quality of giant snakes and giant avocados appearing in the same week—and really, what doesn’t seem like a sign of impending doom these days?—the simultaneous appearance of a giant serpent and a giant avocado raises one very important, very scientific question: Could the 17-foot Burmese python swallow the gigantic avocado?
My initial inquiries into this crucial matter were, unfortunately, inconclusive. Google Scholar revealed a shocking lack of peer-reviewed research into the matter:
It’s not for me to speculate as to whether this gap in scientific knowledge stems from a deliberate cover-up on the part of Big Avocado or Big Python. Rather, my mission was a simpler one: to bring the correct answer to Slate’s readers before a plague of avocado-eating pythons devastated the country, particularly avocado-loving millennials.
As modern science offered very little hard research on the subject of 17-foot Burmese pythons eating avocados the size of a human head, I decided to consult sources from a time when science was a less timid about asking the tough questions: the thirteenth century. Deep within the British Library’s collection of illuminated manuscripts, I discovered a long-forgotten text (Harley MS 3244, written sometime between 1236 and 1250) with an illustrated bestiary that, I hoped, would some light on the matter. Almost immediately, I found exactly what I was looking for:
As Medieval scholars well knew, but we have apparently forgotten, serpents, including the Burmese python, have long, dog-like ears and enjoy flying through the air over open flames, calling out merrily to their fellow snakes, presumably in Latin. Although this did not have a direct bearing on the question of Burmese pythons swallowing avocados the size of human heads, it is difficult to explain the tell-tale bulge in the serpent’s belly as anything other than an avocado (or, perhaps, several avocados). Conveniently, this also explains why human-head-sized avocados were such a rare ingredient in medieval cooking: the flying, talking, dog-eared Burmese pythons ate them all!
With this scientific and historical breakthrough in mind, I consulted H. Bradley Shaffer, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science. Jealous of credit, I did not share the fruits of my research into medieval knowledge of avocado-eating pythons, but I did ask directly whether or not a 17-foot python could eat an avocado the size of a human head. The professor responded immediately and definitively:
Based on what I saw in the video and my knowledge of large snakes, I’d estimate that a 17 foot Burmese has a head about 8 inches long. That means it can essentially ingest something roughly 16 inches in diameter, more or less. The avocado looks to me to be about 6–8 inches in diameter. Its shape makes it much easier for a snake to eat—if it were the same volume, but a sphere, it would be a lot harder.
- No problem for that snake to eat that avocado
- However, snakes are purely carnivores. It would never, ever eat an avocado. Or a watermelon or a head of lettuce.
You’ll notice that Professor Shaffer’s response does not rule out the possibility that the flying, talking snakes of the thirteenth century enjoyed eating giant avocados, so expect my findings on that matter to be published in a leading scientific journal soon. However, the 17-foot Burmese python recently discovered in Florida, according to Professor Shaffer, could eat the human-head-sized avocado recently discovered in Hawaii, but would choose not to as a matter of personal preference. Lending credence to Professor Shaffer’s theory is one additional piece of evidence: the 17-foot Burmese python was shot in the head upon capture, and is reportedly dead. Although research in the matter is not definitive, scientists have long argued that dead snakes don’t eat much of anything at all, not even delicious, enormous avocados.
Which raises another question, even more important: could the avocado the size of a human head eat the 17-foot Burmese python? Probably not, at least not that particular avocado: it’s already been picked and eaten. However, especially in the case of dead 17-foot Burmese pythons, it seems plausible that an avocado tree could, in a sense, eat the python, by absorbing nutrients from its corpse as it decomposed and was reabsorbed in the soil. According to the California Avocado Commission, the plant’s roots are only six inches under the surface, making them ideal for sucking up every last bit of nutrition from dead, 17-foot Burmese pythons, and it seems plausible that a well-irrigated, python-rich soil would help produce more avocados the size of human heads. Advantage: avocado!
The results, then, are clear and irrefutable: avocado growers should immediately wrap dead, 17-foot Burmese pythons around the trunks of each of their avocado trees near the base, water normally, and wait patiently for a crop of human-head sized avocados. Burmese python problem: solved. Tiny avocado problem: solved. Flying, talking, fire-loving serpent problem: not an actual problem. As the odor of rotting snakes wafts over the human-head-sized avocado orchards of tomorrow, we should all remember who to thank: science.
by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles
Fri Dec 22 09:48:30 PST 2017
“It’s not the heat that kills you. It’s the humidity.” As climate change progresses, this is likely to become gruesomely true, according to a new study published Friday in Environmental Research Letters. Climate change–induced increases in humidity could actually exacerbate the effects of heat to the point of making certain places in the world uninhabitable later this century. By 2080, the researchers predict, we’ll see measurements of heat and humidity that go far beyond safe thresholds in which individuals can still function normally. For individuals too poor to afford cooling systems, who have no housing, or anyone with poor health already, the humidity could be lethal.
Humans shed heat by sweating and letting the evaporating moisture carry excess heat away. But when humidity is too high, your sweat doesn’t evaporate as fast, because there’s already tons of moisture in the air. The cooling process is stymied, and your body can’t lower its temperature. Every part of you starts to feel tired, and if you can’t get inside to climate-controlled conditions, heat exhaustion or a heat stroke could take effect.
There are only a handful of studies that have investigated humidity and climate change. This new study investigates the scenarios in which global temperatures rise between 1.8 and 2.2 degrees Celsius. It makes use of a calculation that suggests that when humidity is at 100 percent, temperatures around 85 degrees Fahrenheit actually feel as hot as 107.5 degrees Fahrenheit on the heat index. At 100 percent humidity, 89 or 90 degrees Fahrenheit can feel like 132 degrees Fahrenheit on the heat index, and previous experiments show that this is the limit for what most humans can withstand before they start to fall apart from the one-two heat-humidity combo—and really, many people would fall apart way before that. Currently, those kinds of temperatures hit the southeastern U.S. about one or two days a year and occur about three to five days in places in South America, Africa, India, and China. They’re conditions that very few people in the world have ever experienced.
The study’s model predicts that in many places in the world, under worse estimates for global warming rates, those temperatures could stretch for up to 100 to 250 days a year by 2080. The most devastating effects would happen in northern India, eastern China, the coastal Middle East, and in parts of the Amazon rainforest. Furthermore, hundreds of millions could experience a staggering 95 degrees Fahrenheit at 100 percent humidity—which is literally off the charts on the heat index. In “dry” heat terms, this would feel like 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
The most recent instance of any real weather conditions coming close to this was on July 31, 2015, when Bandar-e Mahshahr in Iran, a city of 100,000 on the coast of the Persian Gulf, found itself hit with a heat index temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Residents kept cool inside, thanks to good infrastructure and cheap electricity. But that could be far from possible for many communities. And even if the heat itself doesn’t kill, the effects could wreak havoc on water reserves, cooling infrastructure, agriculture, and basic technologies. The inability to travel through such ravaging heat could make it extremely difficult for people to get supplies.
To cope, Radley Horton, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a co-author of the study, says communities may need to rely more on automation for labor, shift many activities to overnight hours, and revamp clothing. “Access to fail-safe air conditioning could become a matter of life or death in a growing number of places,” he says, “although we could see growing reliance on ‘cooling pools’ as a source of short-term protection.”
by Meg Charlton @ Slate Articles
Thu Nov 02 06:00:00 PDT 2017
In his ongoing quest to dismantle his predecessor’s signature achievements, President Trump is threatening to repeal the Clean Power Plan. On its face, the news is discouraging: The law’s state-by-state carbon emissions guidelines and strict regulations on coal-fired power plants were on track to have a huge impact. By 2030, the bill’s guidelines would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the utility sector to below 2005 levels, which would have enabled America to meet its commitments to lowering carbon dioxide emissions made in the Paris climate accord. Losing it would seem to be an enormous blow.
But the panic seems to be premature. Many states, including California, home to nearly 40 million power-consuming people, are on track to exceed their emissions goals with or without the bill’s help. The bill would have hastened changes in states that are more reluctant, but the U.S. is, according to the most recent numbers, still on track to meet the emissions goals the bill set forth. That’s because cities and states have a large amount of autonomy to fight climate change on their own. In the wake of Trump’s election, many local and state governments have taken the power (excuse the pun) into their own hands. There has been a burst of mass movements—from the coalition of states pledging that they’re “still in” the Paris Agreement to the cities resolving to run on 100 percent renewable energy—to make sure they’re providing clean energy to their residents.
Unfortunately, this patchwork of pledges and coalitions highlights one of the most basic issues with the pursuit of “clean power” as a policy goal—we have no real, common definition of what “clean” actually means in this context. Calling a power source “clean” is kind of like calling a food “all natural.” As a consumer who both regularly buys “all natural” food and has supported “clean energy” projects, I will tell you that branding works, at least on me. It sounds so wholesome, so virtuous—but it also tells me very little about the product itself.
Even the term renewable doesn’t have a strict definition. Everyone can agree that wind and solar are renewable, but beyond that, things can get contentious. Is a brand-new large-scale hydroelectric dam “renewable”? (According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, no.) What about wood pellets? (According to the EU, yes.) Municipal waste? (Depends whom you ask.) Each rule defines the terms afresh and allows for different fuel sources to be anointed accordingly. And the documents that make these distinctions are, of course, political, subject to the same last-minute maneuvering and local interests as any other industry.
Take Burlington, Vermont, the archetype of lefty governance. In 2015, it became the first city in America to run entirely on renewable energy—fossil fuel free, residents said—and the city was widely celebrated for the accomplishment. But some environmental advocates quickly pushed back, pointing out that the fuel source that put it over the edge was biomass, or really, just lumber. While much of one plant’s wood was coming from wood waste, some advocates pointed out that there were trees specifically logged for the purpose of being burned at the power plant. The pushback was sharp enough that it led to an editor’s note being added to an otherwise glowing PBS report on the city’s transition. And just over the border in Massachusetts, mere miles away, biomass is far more heavily restricted and regulated. (Another crucial part of Burlington’s energy portfolio was large-scale hydroelectric, the future development of which would be verboten under the aforementioned U.S. Conference of Mayors resolution.)
Even wind and solar aren’t necessarily as “clean” as you might expect. Germany’s Energiewende strategy was launched in 2010 with the express goals of lowering its carbon output well below its 1990 levels and shifting its electric grid toward wind and solar. By 2016, the country had seemingly achieved its goal; for a brief and shining moment that year, Germans were getting a staggering 90 percent of their power from renewables. But during this same heady period, their carbon emissions actually rose and have proved stubbornly high in the year since.
The reasons for Germany’s rising emissions are multifold—it has shifted away from nuclear and also just started consuming more energy in general. But at least one is related to the mechanics of power grids: Wind and solar (at least for now) still need backup power sources that can run when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Power grids are designed to have a constant perfect match of supply and demand and—because we don’t yet have the battery technology available at an industrial scale for storage of wind and solar energy—we are reliant on backup power systems to keep the system running consistently. Germany’s backup power is, overwhelmingly, coal. And although coal’s share of the German power grid is declining, the country is still, in essence, doubling up, with an older, more polluting system running by necessity alongside a newer, less polluting one.
These are just two examples of our understanding of “renewable” or “clean” going awry. I’m not suggesting the places that tried to enact them were purposefully misleading their public, nor even that their policies were misguided. I am just saying that when it comes to assessing carbon life cycles, things get complicated quickly.
So what do we do about it? We could certainly try to create better definitions or standards for each, but it seems almost inevitable that we will never have a perfect definition of what constitutes “clean” or “renewable.” Technologies will continue to improve, emerge, and evolve. And, just as today’s do, those changing technologies will have their own trade-offs. Instead, we as power consumers and citizens must be proactive and look behind those virtue-signaling labels to have the complicated conversations about emissions. After all, our federal government has ensured that this critical work is not its problem—now it’s up to all of us.
by Elizabeth Shogren @ Slate Articles
Fri Dec 29 12:43:47 PST 2017
President Donald Trump has spent the past year steadily undoing Obama-era environmental protections, especially rules designed to fight climate change. By law, agencies must go through a lengthy process to rescind or rewrite many rules, but executive orders and other policies are easier to erase. Some of the rollbacks have major implications for the West and public lands.
Here we take a look at some of the most important rollbacks of the past year:
Trump slashed two national monuments in southern Utah and is considering changes to other monuments in the West. Under Trump’s boundaries, Bears Ears becomes two separate management units: Indian Creek and Shash Jáa. The two together are just 15 percent of the footprint protected by President Barack Obama in 2016. The new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is about half its original size. Countless archaeological, paleontological, cultural, and scenic treasures are left out of Trump’s new boundaries. Bears Ears and Escalante supporters are suing to block this unprecedented action.
At the Trump administration’s urging, Congress in December opened parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. This was an enormous loss for the Gwich’in, a Native Alaskan people, and environmental groups, which had successfully protected the refuge from drilling for decades. Drilling in the refuge is part of a broader policy of the administration to increase oil production in Alaska and in Western public lands in general. In December, the administration offered the largest lease sale ever in the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska. But companies bid on a tiny fraction of land available—only seven of the 900 tracts offered.
Clean Water Rule
The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to rescind the 2015 Clean Water Rule. This rule—particularly important in the arid West—mandates, for example, protecting tributaries that connect to navigable waterways and adjoining wetlands, even if they flow only part of the year. If it’s revoked, those tributaries could be filled in, ditched, or diverted for construction or farming without federal review.
In October, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether federal district courts or appeals courts should hear several pending cases challenging the rule. It’s unclear when it will issue a decision. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt plans to write a new rule describing which waters and wetlands warrant federal protection and which should be left to state discretion. In the meantime, the Trump administration is trying to delay the date the Obama rule goes into effect until 2020 in case the courts uphold it.
The EPA also plans to eliminate protection of many wetlands and streams by narrowing the definition of a “navigable water.” This will be especially significant in the arid West, where most streams run only part of the year or after rain events.
Fossil fuel royalties rule
In August, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke repealed a 2016 Obama rule designed to ensure that taxpayers get a fair return on oil, gas, and coal. The Obama administration estimated the rule would have increased the royalties that fossil fuel industries pay to mine and drill federal lands and waters by about $80 million a year. The rule was meant to eliminate a loophole that allows companies to sell to affiliated companies that then export and resell the minerals at higher prices, reducing royalties. Zinke said it was too complex and plans to draft a new rule.
BLM methane rule
In 2016, the Bureau of Land Management implemented a rule limiting how much methane can be released from some 96,000 oil and gas wells on federal and tribal lands. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and the 2016 rule’s goal was to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, smog and health problems, as well as to increase royalties. Industry claims the rule is too onerous and duplicates state rules.
Congressional Republicans tried unsuccessfully in May to erase the rule using the Congressional Review Act. The BLM in December suspended it until 2019, and Zinke plans to rewrite it.
EPA methane rule
The EPA also passed a rule in 2016 designed to limit methane emissions, but from new and modified oil and gas wells, compressor stations, pneumatic pumps, and similar equipment. It was a key part of Obama’s climate change agenda; his administration projected that industry’s costs would be partially offset by revenues from recovering and selling more natural gas. Pruitt has sought to prevent the rule from going into effect, but environmentalists and the states of New Mexico and California have been fighting him in court. The EPA now has proposed suspending the rule for two years while it redrafts it.
National Environmental Policy Act reviews
In an Aug. 31 secretarial order, the Department of Interior “streamlined” agencies’ processes for analyzing the environmental impacts of major actions. Now, agencies may not spend more than a year to complete environmental impact statements, nor may their final reports be more than 150 pages or 300 pages “for unusually complex projects.”
Environmental groups fear the arbitrary deadlines will hinder public engagement in public-land decisions. But John Freemuth, a public policy professor at Boise State University, said environmental impact statements are often long and incomprehensible to most people. “Trying to make this process work better and happen quicker is probably not a bad thing, unless it’s done for surrogate reasons, like to get more coal off the land,” Freemuth says.
Obama wanted the federal coal-mining program to better reflect its costs to taxpayers and the planet. So in 2016, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell placed a three-year moratorium on new coal leases on federal land while reviewing the program, which produces about 40 percent of the coal burned in the U.S. for electricity.
This March, Zinke canceled both the moratorium and the review. Given declining demand for coal, though, there’s been no rush for new leases. One exception: Cloud Peak Energy is seeking to expand operations in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
National parks management
The National Park Service in August rescinded a sweeping December 2016 policy instructing managers to use an adaptive approach to decision-making, taking into account uncertainties such as climate change impacts, and erring on the side of caution to protect natural and cultural resources. The policy also committed to address worker harassment. Now, NPS says revoking the order avoids confusion while Zinke establishes his own vision for the parks.
Also in August, the agency ended a six-year policy that allowed parks to ban the sale of disposable water bottles to decrease waste and greenhouse gas pollution. Western parks that banned bottled water included Arizona’s Grand Canyon; Arches, Bryce, and Canyonlands in Utah; Saguaro in Arizona; and Colorado National Monument.
The EPA has taken steps to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era regulation intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 32 percent by 2030 compared to 2005. The Supreme Court had already stayed the rule, pending court review. The Trump administration asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit not to rule in the case, and in August the court agreed to suspend its review.
Trump’s EPA also is reconsidering an earlier Obama administration rule that required that all new power plants meet greenhouse gas standards, which roughly equate to emissions from modern natural gas plants. The rule effectively banned the construction of new conventional coal-fired power plants and remains in effect.
Trump revoked Obama administration policies that had blocked or postponed construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Environmentalists had long objected to Keystone XL because the heavy tar sands crude oil that it carries has a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional crude oil. It requires a lot of energy to get tar sands out of the ground and process it for transporting by pipelines.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and many supporters from other tribes and the environmental community staged a monthslong protest to oppose DAPL. They raised concerns about sovereignty and the risk that potential spills pose to water resources that the tribe needs for farming and other uses. Trump touts the pipeline projects as key parts of his energy independence and infrastructure plans.
The EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are considering backtracking from Obama’s plans to boost fuel efficiency for cars and light trucks to the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025.
The outcome is important in the West because California has led the rest of the country in pressing for cleaner cars, both to improve its air quality and achieve its climate change goals. California has fiercely objected to the possible rollback and vows to keep the standards. Thirteen other states, including Oregon and Washington, also warned Pruitt not to weaken the fuel standards and vowed to defend them in court if he does.
Obama withdrew large sections of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from drilling to protect marine habitats. In an April executive order, Trump reversed the withdrawals and ordered annual lease sales in those areas, including in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, Cook Inlet, Mid-Atlantic, and South Atlantic. Environmental groups have sued in federal court, challenging the legality of Trump’s action.
Blowout prevention rule
In April, Trump ordered a reconsideration of a 2016 rule designed to prevent the kind of engineering failures that led to the catastrophic 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. That explosion killed 11 workers and inundated the fragile coast and deep sea with the largest marine oil spill ever seen, pummeling the Gulf’s seafood industry, killing thousands of marine mammals and rare sea turtles, and contaminating their habitats.
The chairmen of the bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling warned in a New York Times opinion piece that Trump’s order threatens the most important safeguard for preventing repeats of the BP disaster.
Social cost of carbon
Trump abolished policies crafted by the Obama administration to consider the cost of climate change to future generations when considering the costs and benefits of proposed regulations and when analyzing the environmental impacts of government actions under the National Environmental Policy Act. The social cost of carbon is a dollar amount that represents how much a ton of carbon pollution will “cost” society over the long run, such as the loss of usable dry land because of sea level rise, stresses to agriculture from droughts, and increased need for air conditioning. Trump’s March executive order directs agencies to use a 2003 policy that does not include directions on calculating these future costs of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Trump administration’s approach has started to run afoul of the courts. A federal judge in August blocked a major expansion of a coal mine in Montana and ordered the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to redo its environmental analysis. The judge took issue with the agency’s argument that the millions of tons of extra greenhouse gas emissions from the Montana mine would not result in any costs to society because if that coal weren’t burned, other coal would be. Judge Donald Molloy of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana said the conclusion was illogical and put the agency’s “thumb on the scale by inflating the benefits of the action while minimizing its impacts.”
Floods and infrastructure
As part of his strategy to prepare the United States for the greater risks of climate change, Obama signed an executive order in 2015 requiring that the federal government consider sea level rise and storm surge when designing infrastructure and building in flood-prone areas. Just days before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Trump signed an executive order revoking Obama’s order.
Trump defended his decision as an incentive for investments in infrastructure. Many professional engineers, insurance companies, and environmentalists objected to the repeal, saying that the standard protected people and property and reduced expenses to the federal government associated with rebuilding after flooding.
by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles
Fri Dec 01 14:55:52 PST 2017
I will be upfront: I’m no fan of glitter, also known as wearable garbage or that thing only rich people who don’t have to clean up after themselves can ever really enjoy. It’s both omnipresent and irksome, a mediocre marketing tool and probably outdated form of protest.
But still. The proposed global ban on glitter has spiraled out of control.
For a little background, on Nov. 16, Trisia Farrelly, a lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand with a focus on plastics, told British newspaper the Independent that glitter wasn’t just a glitzy pollutant but a serious environmental hazard: “I think all glitter should be banned, because it’s microplastic.” Inexplicably, some two weeks later, American outlets, including the decidedly un-bedazzled New York Times, started reprinting Farrelly’s statement, using it as the basis for entire articles with titles like “Scientists are trying to put a global ban on glitter” (that one’s courtesy of the New York Daily News). The theoretical ban quickly gained traction among Kesha critics and craft purists. In the midst of yet another brutal week, the impending glitter ban just felt like the right thing to talk about—no matter which side you were on.
The scientific rationale for a glitter ban is similarly simple: Microplastics, which Farrelly argues is a category that includes glitter, are fragments of plastics smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. Microplastics can develop when larger pieces of plastic degrade, but they’re often also created from scratch. Microbeads, which were popular in exfoliants and other bath and beauty products, are a type of microplastics. When these bits and bobs end up in the ocean or other waterways—which each year millions of pounds inevitably do—they can be ingested by fish and other aquatic life and cause blockages, mutations, and other injuries.
The problems posed by microplastics have gripped the public consciousness in recent years. In 2015, the United States outlawed the production of microbead-containing cosmetics. Many countries, including the United Kingdom and Farrelly’s own New Zealand, have made similar efforts to stem this microplastic tide.
Still, Farrelly says, many other factors contributing to the current scourge of microplastics remain unregulated. That’s why she wants glitter banned, too, from both craft stores and Sephora. As yhr Independent notes, some cosmetic companies and craft stories have already replaced traditional glitter with more biodegradable alternatives, though the veracity of these companies’ claims is unclear. But apparently people want to go at least a step further with a global ban.
The problem is, while manufactured microplastics like microbeads and glitter certainly seem to be a threat, they’re an infinitesimal part of the enormous plastic problem. Degrading plastic, which is thought to be the source of the majority of ocean plastic pollution, is complicated and multisourced. Any plastic—from improperly discarded milk cartons to pesky plastic bags that flew away in the breeze—can be transformed by the beating sun, lapping waves, and the ticking of the clock into a fish-killing microplastic soup.
So yeah, we can go ahead and ban glitter. But no one should be fooled into thinking a war on glitter will really save the oceans. The end of the world seems close. Let it sparkle.
by Emily Atkin @ Slate Articles
Mon Nov 06 06:00:00 PST 2017
Of all the scenes of devastation in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria, one video has stood out. Shot from a balcony or rooftop, it depicts six seconds of horror: the city of Guayama, on the island’s southern coast, engulfed by a violent river. Deep, fast-moving water rushes through the streets, slipping over cars and picking up debris. The images would be jarring in any city, but they are particularly terrifying in this one. Guayama is home not just to 42,000 people, who are now struggling to survive, but also to a five-story-tall pile of toxic coal ash—another environmental catastrophe in the making.
Weeks after Hurricane Maria’s landfall, the status of Guayama’s coal-ash pile remains unclear. How much of this waste—the leftovers from burning coal—got into the floodwater or into the air? The company that owns the pile, AES Puerto Rico, did not respond to requests for comment. But scientific researchers have long raised concerns that the coal ash, which contains high levels of arsenic, mercury, and chromium, represents a massive health hazard—one that Maria has now likely exacerbated.
This is hardly an isolated issue. There are more than 1,000 coal-ash storage sites across the United States, from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Denver. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the coal industry generates 130 million tons of ash each year, making it one of the largest sources of industrial waste in the country. According to the Sierra Club, this waste has contaminated more than 23,000 miles of waterways—including nearly 400 bodies of water used for human consumption. Duke University scientists have found that coal-ash storage ponds consistently contaminate nearby water sources, threatening both wildlife and people.
The consequences for human health can be serious. Families living near a coal-ash pond in Belmont, North Carolina, for example, have reported abnormally high rates of cancer, and in 2015, the state advised residents not to drink tap water or cook with it. The coal industry hotly disputes the idea that coal-ash ponds are responsible, but environmentalists argue that the link appears clear. “We’ve had really high spikes in arsenic in our main drinking water source in the region, and it’s because for years we didn’t have enough regulation,” says Sam Perkins, the program director at the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Charlotte, North Carolina. “The last thing we need to be doing is adding any more coal ash to these sites.”
But in the name of ending the so-called war on coal, the Trump administration has been loosening environmental regulations designed to keep coal ash in check. The EPA has repealed restrictions on toxic waste from mountaintop-removal mining, which sends dangerous heavy metals tumbling into streams and rivers. And it has put on hold a regulation that restricted the levels of mercury, arsenic, and other pollutants coal plants can produce and that prohibited certain types of chemical-laden waste from being discharged into bodies of water. The EPA estimated that the policy would have decreased coal waste by 1.4 billion pounds each year—a huge benefit to public health. But the rule would also have cost the coal industry $480 million annually, due to the new treatment systems and other equipment coal plants would need to install.
In fact, one of the administration’s most recent decisions came via a request by AES Puerto Rico. Earlier this year, the company asked EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to pause a regulation regarding the monitoring and storage of coal ash. And in September—before Hurricane Maria hit—AES got what it wanted: Pruitt announced he would reconsider the Obama-era rule, which would have required coal companies to make sure their waste pits are not leaking or otherwise threatening human health. The regulation would have meant an existential threat for the industry. Forcing companies to monitor the pollution from their coal waste would have revealed just how great a health hazard coal ash truly represents—potentially exposing coal companies to costly class-action lawsuits that could result in payouts in the millions.
Environmentalists have consoled themselves with the knowledge that Trump can’t actually prevent coal’s downfall. Most analysts agree that coal can’t compete with alternative energy sources like natural gas, wind, and solar, which are easier and cheaper to produce. “The long-term prognosis for the coal industry in every region from now through 2050 is poor,” the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has concluded. Even Robert Murray, the founder and chief executive of America’s biggest coal firm, Murray Energy, has said that Trump should “temper his expectations” when it comes to resuscitating the coal industry. “He can’t bring them back,” Murray has said of mining jobs.
But as the crisis in Puerto Rico suggests, even a short-term surge in coal production may have lasting repercussions. By dismantling regulations that limit the amount of waste these companies produce and that enable the government to hold them accountable for polluting, Trump is compounding a public health disaster that every powerful storm surge will compound further—and that will continue long after the last coal-fired power plant shuts down.
by Danielle Ofri @ Slate Articles
Wed Nov 29 16:37:48 PST 2017
Sasha (not her real name) was on break from college when she saw me for her annual check-up. It’d been a stressful year but a good one: She’d finally selected her major, and her first round of exams had gone well, though she still had to work nights at a restaurant to make ends meet.
Sasha’s mother is also my patient, so I have some sense of the family background. Sasha’s father left years ago, and Sasha’s mother—an immigrant who speaks only modest English—has held things together working as a street vendor and a housecleaner.
In many ways, Sasha is living the American dream. She was raised in a single-parent, struggling immigrant family and is now the first person in her family to attend college. She is on her way to a professional career that will not require the backbreaking physical labor her mother has spent decades doing.
But from caring for both Sasha and her mother, I know that this storybook trajectory is far from assured. They both rely on Medicaid for their health care. If the Affordable Care Act is undone, they could be one of the millions of unlucky Americans who lose their health insurance. That could have catastrophic effects on their health and their finances.
Luckily, the Affordable Care Act survived three frontal assaults over the summer and into the fall. Now suddenly, it’s in the crosshairs again. But this time, it’s more of a sneak attack: Congressional Republicans have to find a way to pay for their tax cut, and they’ve stumbled upon a politically ingenious way to do so. If they repeal the individual mandate that is a cornerstone of the ACA, they’ll be able to come up with some $300 billion to offset their tax cuts. And by pulling out this key girder, they’ll be able to hobble their hated ACA without the effort of passing an unpopular repeal bill.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that pulling out the individual mandate will knock 4 million Americans off the health insurance rolls by 2019, and 13 million by 2027. (Once the mandate is not in force, many people—mostly the healthy ones—will choose not to buy insurance. Premiums will then rise steeply, pricing millions more out of the market.)
So, the other day, I called the office of Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy to talk about Sasha. I’m not from Louisiana and neither is Sasha, but Sen. Cassidy’s vote could have a huge impact on Sasha’s health. I chose Cassidy because he is one of the nominally “swing state” senators, but mainly because he is one of the three physicians in the Senate, and I wanted to talk medicine with him, doctor-to-doctor.
The staffer in Cassidy’s office was very polite. I told him about Sasha and how I was worried about her health, how losing her insurance could derail her health as well as her job prospects. I told them about Sasha’s mother, who could die if her diabetes and heart disease went untreated. “What will happen to them if they lose their insurance?” I asked. The staffer didn’t have a reply for me. “What’s Dr. Cassidy’s backup plan for my patients when they lose access to medical care?” The staffer was sheepish about not having any sort of answer. I actually felt sorry for him.
I received the same shamefaced response when I called the other two physicians in the Senate—Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Barrasso of Wyoming. I pressed the staff about my patients, but they could only backpedal uncomfortably. I reminded them that Dr. Paul and Dr. Barrasso are still doctors, even if they are sitting in the Senate chamber instead of an exam room. The commitment to “do no harm” doesn’t disappear when you take off your white coat.
Before this year, I’d never called a member of Congress in my entire life. Even when I disagreed with what was happening in our government, it never crossed my mind. I didn’t even know that you actually could call Congress.
But something changed for me when the House, and then the Senate, aggressively pushed to repeal the ACA this past summer. The gravity of the potential harm to my patients made it impossible to sit on the sidelines. This bill was a medical emergency, and we in medicine had to treat it as such.
Medical professionals of all stripes—typically a politically reticent group—stepped up to the plate. Individual doctors, nurses, medical students, and physical therapists called lawmakers, organized demonstrations, circulated petitions, and rallied colleagues. Even more strikingly, medical organizations—an even more hidebound group—lined up uniformly and publicly against the repeal of the ACA. There was a recognition that they we have a duty to protect the health of their patients
This most recent sideswipe to the ACA garnered some press when it first came out two weeks ago, but it has largely dropped out of the news, as the tax bill tussle focuses on standard deductions, corporate rates, 401(k)s, deficits, estate taxes, and “pass-through” businesses. Somehow, this new threat to the ACA feels less urgent than the past ones we have weathered—indeed, the entire tax bill hasn’t inspired quite the same sense of alarm as any of the attacks on the ACA.
But we can’t let this attempt go unchallenged. There were many reasons for the failure of the earlier ACA repeal attempts, but there’s no doubt that the universal opposition by medical groups and individual health care providers played an important moral role.
Repeal attempt No. 4 may go by another name—tax reform—but its effect will be the same, with millions of Americans losing access to health care. Medical organizations have again released statements opposing this backdoor attack on the ACA, but it has hardly made the news. There are almost no media interviews with doctors and nurses on how the tax bill will affect their patients. There are hardly any medical experts on the cable news shows, and certainly none on Capitol Hill.
Something about it being a tax bill rather than a medical bill has made it feel less personal to doctors, to patients, to medical organizations, and to the media. But for the millions of Americans like Sasha and her mother, the fallout from this bill will be intensely personal.
We in the medical profession cannot rest easy. Political forces seem determined to push their agendas, no matter how many ordinary people are harmed. Sens. Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and John McCain have each made impassioned speeches about the danger of Trump to the nation. We need to make sure their actions match their rhetoric. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Susan Collins have backed away from ACA repeal in the past. Let’s keep them focused on medical “side effects” of this tax bill.
For those of us who see real medical side effects in our daily work, this is a critical matter of patient safety. We have to keep reminding our elected officials about the human costs of their political agenda.
by Christine Manganaro @ Slate Articles
Fri Jan 05 14:41:28 PST 2018
The belief that “natural” is better has animated many food and health trends in recent memory, with natural as a shorthand denoting purity, a lack of processing, or rejection of modern medicine: raw foodism, enthusiasm for raw dairy, the paleo diet, and organic evangelism. Next up: “raw water.”
The raw water trend takes naturalness to its extreme: Proponents boast that it comes from “off the grid,” celebrating its freedom from government taint. Cody Friesen, CEO of Zero Mass Water, which is marketed not as raw water but as “pure water,” disparages municipal water. His $4,500 Source system draws water from the air we all breathe. (Raw water comes from pristine springs.)* As reported to the New York Times, “The goal, Mr. Friesen said, is to make water ‘that’s ultra high quality and secure, totally disconnected from all infrastructure.’ ”
There are so many things that are obnoxious about the raw water trend that it seems entirely possible that it is in fact the most obnoxious Silicon Valley disruption project yet. It’s instructive to go beyond the gut-level reaction against raw water to consider exactly why it’s so frustrating.
There’s the greed. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have found a way to market drinking water up to $36.99 for a 2½-gallon bottle and refills for $14.99—that’s about 30 times the cost of regular bottled water, which itself costs between 300 and 2,000 times the cost of municipal drinking water. Essentially, they’ve turned one of the requirements for sustaining life into a lucrative commodity and luxury good. Live Water founder Mukhande Singh (né Christopher Sanborn) sells his product through delivery service and in natural food stores like the Rainbow co-op in San Francisco, where Live Water is frequently sold out.* Other vendors, like Liquid Eden in San Diego, capitalize on the “water consciousness movement” to the tune of 900 gallons a day in sales.
Then there’s the stupidity. Raw water enthusiasts trespass on private land, at night, to harvest from secret springs. These people are not only risking legal consequences, they’re risking contracting a bacterial infection or parasite, as physicians and public health experts have warned. This water fetching trades on fantasies about an environment that doesn’t exist and nostalgia for water purity that never existed. Spring water is not necessarily free of elements that harm health. All water sources are part of the environment and are not isolated from “industrial age contamination,” as described by the Live Water guys. The idea that Americans drank abundant pristine water before the industrial age, in the first half of the 19th century and earlier, is not supported by the historical record. There is a reason that everyone including children drank so much hard cider and beer during the 1700s and 1800s: because waterborne illness was prevalent, and alcoholic beverages were safer than many sources of “raw water.” This was especially true in proximity to towns whose water sources and sewage systems were not well differentiated.
And then there’s the bad science. Like erroneous claims that drinking fresh juice cleanses the body of toxins, claims about the healthfulness of untreated water are based on belief rather than evidence. Raw water purveyors either lack the scientific literacy to interpret the available research or intentionally misrepresent science to support health claims about their product. The Live Water website cites an inconclusive study to support its claim that “raw spring water has vast healing abilities.” The linked journal article claims that there is a correlation (which is not causation, as the saying goes) between the skin-regenerating effects of topical application of water from Italy’s Comano spring and the presence of nonpathogenic bacteria in the water. No untreated water was consumed by anyone in the course of this study.
But what’s most obnoxious about this phenomenon is its misanthropy. Most infuriating of all is perhaps how the raw water movement underscores the increasing realization that tech-bro Silicon Valley fetishists have abandoned the rest of society.
It is not hard to see how twisted it is for a group of privileged people with access to safe municipal drinking water to spurn it in favor of something more dangerous when people in largely black and poor Flint, Michigan, are being poisoned with lead and people in largely black rural Alabama are contracting hookworm from untreated water. By claiming that tap water is “toilet water with birth control drugs,” that fluoride is a “mind control drug,” and that treated water lacks probiotics supposedly present in untreated water, purveyors of “raw water” incite mistrust in municipal water safety—in places where the water has been proven safe to drink, no less—and perpetuate cynicism about regulations that protect public health. (Conversely, when people making fun of raw water frame all untreated water as giardia juice, they betray their ignorance about the number of Americans living in rural areas who get their water from perfectly adequate wells.)
The raw water trend is consistent with other asocial behaviors by venture capitalists using their wealth to eschew civic responsibility and insulate themselves from social problems. If raw water evangelists actually think treated water is poisoned by fluoride and prescription drugs, that water safety is threatened by industrial pollution, and that a lack of good bacteria found in our water is really a significant cause of malnourishment, then they ought to be moved to activism on what should be understood as a matter of civil and human rights. Instead, they’ve created expensive untreated bottled water, a market solution and form of conspicuous consumption. The raw water movement doesn’t only reveal how gullible and unscientific this community is—it also secures its place as our modern-day moneyed overlords who care little about the serfs down below.
*Correction, Jan. 8, 2018: This story originally misstated that Doug Evans is the CEO of Live Water. He is just a customer. (Return.)
*Update, Jan. 8, 2018: This paragraph has been updated to clarify that Zero Mass Water, which collects its water from water vapor using a $4,500 system, does not consider itself part of the raw water movement. (Return.)
Complete January 18, 2012 issue of The Mirror newspaper as it appeared in print. For more online, visit us at www.campbellrivermirror.com
by John Ehrenreich @ Slate Articles
Thu Nov 09 06:00:00 PST 2017
Many conservatives have a loose relationship with facts. The right-wing denial of what most people think of as accepted reality starts with political issues: As recently as 2016, 45 percent of Republicans still believed that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels” (it doesn’t). A 2015 poll found that 54 percent of GOP primary voters believed then-President Obama to be a Muslim (…he isn’t).
Then there are the false beliefs about generally accepted science. Only 25 percent of self-proclaimed Trump voters agree that climate change is caused by human activities. Only 43 percent of Republicans overall believe that humans have evolved over time.
And then it gets really crazy. Almost 1 in 6 Trump voters, while simultaneously viewing photographs of the crowds at the 2016 inauguration of Donald Trump and at the 2012 inauguration of Barack Obama , insisted that the former were larger. Sixty-six percent of self-described “very conservative” Americans seriously believe that “Muslims are covertly implementing Sharia law in American courts.” Forty-six percent of Trump voters polled just after the 2016 election either thought that Hillary Clinton was connected to a child sex trafficking ring run out of the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., or weren’t sure if it was true.
If “truth” is judged on the basis of Enlightenment ideas of reason and more or less objective “evidence,” many of the substantive positions common on the right seem to border on delusional. The left is certainly not immune to credulity (most commonly about the safety of vaccines, GMO foods, and fracking), but the right seems to specialize in it. “Misinformation is currently predominantly a pathology of the right,” concluded a team of scholars from the Harvard Kennedy School and Northeastern University at a February 2017 conference. A BuzzFeed analysis found that three main hyperconservative Facebook pages were roughly twice as likely as three leading ultraliberal Facebook pages to publish fake or misleading information.
Why are conservatives so susceptible to misinformation? The right wing’s disregard for facts and reasoning is not a matter of stupidity or lack of education. College-educated Republicans are actually more likely than less-educated Republicans to have believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim and that “death panels” were part of the ACA. And for political conservatives, but not for liberals, greater knowledge of science and math is associated with a greater likelihood of dismissing what almost all scientists believe about the human causation of global warming.
It’s also not just misinformation gained from too many hours listening to Fox News, either, because correcting the falsehoods doesn’t change their opinions. For example, nine months following the release of President Obama’s long-form birth certificate, the percentage of Republicans who believed that he was not American-born was actually higher than before the release. Similarly, during the 2012 presidential campaign, Democrats corrected their previous overestimates of the unemployment rate after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the actual data. Republicans’ overestimated even more than before.
Part of the problem is widespread suspicion of facts—any facts. Both mistrust of scientists and other “experts” and mistrust of the mass media that reports what scientists and experts believe have increased among conservatives (but not among liberals) since the early ’80s. The mistrust has in part, at least, been deliberately inculcated. The fossil fuel industry publicizes studies to confuse the climate change debate; Big Pharma hides unfavorable information on drug safety and efficacy; and many schools in conservative areas teach students that evolution is “just a theory.” The public is understandably confused about both the findings and methods of science. “Fake news” deliberately created for political or economic gain and Donald Trump’s claims that media sites that disagree with him are “fake news” add to the mistrust.
But, the gullibility of many on the right seems to have deeper roots even than this. That may be because at the most basic level, conservatives and liberals seem to hold different beliefs about what constitutes “truth.” Finding facts and pursuing evidence and trusting science is part of liberal ideology itself. For many conservatives, faith and intuition and trust in revealed truth appear as equally valid sources of truth.
To understand how these differences manifest and what we might do about them, it helps to understand how all humans reason and rationalize: In other words, let’s take a detour into psychology. Freud distinguished between “errors” on the one hand, “illusions” and “delusions” on the other. Errors, he argued, simply reflect lack of knowledge or poor logic; Aristotle’s belief that vermin form out of dung was an error. But illusions and delusions are based on conscious or unconscious wishes; Columbus’s belief that he had found a new route to the Indies was a delusion based on his wish that he had done so.
Although Freud is out of favor with many contemporary psychologists, modern cognitive psychology suggests that he was on the right track. The tenacity of many of the right’s beliefs in the face of evidence, rational arguments, and common sense suggest that these beliefs are not merely alternate interpretations of facts but are instead illusions rooted in unconscious wishes.
This is a very human thing to do. As popular writers such as Daniel Kahneman, Cass Sunstein, and Richard Thaler have pointed out, we often use shortcuts when we reason, shortcuts that enable us to make decisions quickly and with little expenditure of mental energy. But they also often lead us astray—we underestimate the risks of events that unfold slowly and whose consequences are felt only over the long term (think global warming) and overestimate the likelihood of events that unfold rapidly and have immediate consequences (think terrorist attacks).
Our reasoning is also influenced (motivated, psychologists would say) by our emotions and instincts. This manifests in all kinds of ways: We need to maintain a positive self-image, to stave off anxiety and guilt, and to preserve social relationships. We also seek to maintain consistency in our beliefs, meaning that when people simultaneously hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, one or the other must go. And so we pay more attention and give more credence to information and assertions that confirm what we already believe: Liberals enthusiastically recount even the most tenuous circumstantial evidence of Trump campaign collusion with the Russians, and dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporters happily believe that the crowd really was bigger at his candidate’s inauguration.
These limits to “objective” reasoning apply to everyone, of course—left and right. Why is it that conservatives have taken the lead in falling off the deep edge?
The answer, I think, lies in the interaction between reasoning processes and personality. It’s each person’s particular motivations and particular psychological makeup that affects how they search for information, what information they pay attention to, how they assess the accuracy and meaning of the information, what information they retain, and what conclusions they draw. But conservatives and liberals typically differ in their particular psychological makeups. And if you add up all of these particular differences, you get two groups that are systematically motivated to believe different things.
Psychologists have repeatedly reported that self-described conservatives tend to place a higher value than those to their left on deference to tradition and authority. They are more likely to value stability, conformity, and order, and have more difficulty tolerating novelty and ambiguity and uncertainty. They are more sensitive than liberals to information suggesting the possibility of danger than to information suggesting benefits. And they are more moralistic and more likely to repress unconscious drives towards unconventional sexuality.
Fairness and kindness place lower on the list of moral priorities for conservatives than for liberals. Conservatives show a stronger preference for higher status groups, are more accepting of inequality and injustice, and are less empathic (at least towards those outside their immediate family). As one Tea Party member told University of California sociologist Arlie Hochschild, “People think we are not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees. But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.”
Baptist minister and former Republican congressman J.C. Watts put it succinctly. Campaigning for Sen. Rand Paul in Iowa in 2015 he observed, “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good.”
These conservative traits lead directly to conservative views on many issues, just as liberal traits tend to lead to liberal views on many issues. But when you consider how these conservative traits and these conservative views interact with commonly shared patterns of motivated reasoning, it becomes clearer why conservatives may be more likely to run into errors in reasoning and into difficulty judging accurately what is true and what is false.
It’s not just that Trump is “their” president, so they want to defend him. Conservatives’ greater acceptance of hierarchy and trust in authority may lead to greater faith that what the president says must be true, even when the “facts” would seem to indicate otherwise. The New York Times cataloged no less than 117 clearly false statements proclaimed publicly by Trump in the first six months of his presidency, with no evident loss in his supporters’ faith in him. In the same way, greater faith in the legitimacy of the decisions of corporate CEOs may strengthen the tendency to deny evidence that there are any potential benefits from regulation of industry.
Similarly, greater valuation of stability, greater sensitivity to the possibility of danger, and greater difficulty tolerating difference and change lead to greater anxiety about social change and so support greater credulity with respect to lurid tales of the dangers posed by immigrants. And higher levels of repression and greater adherence to tradition and traditional sources of moral judgment increase the credibility of claims that gay marriage is a threat to the “traditional” family.
Conservatives are also less introspective, less attentive to their inner feelings, and less likely to override their “gut” reactions and engage in further reflection to find a correct answer. As a result, they may be more likely to rely on error-prone cognitive shortcuts, less aware of their own unconscious biases, and less likely to respond to factual corrections to previously held beliefs.
The differences in how conservatives and liberals process information are augmented by an asymmetry in group psychological processes. Yes, we all seek to keep our social environment stable and predictable. Beliefs that might threaten relationships with family, neighbors, and friends (e.g., for a fundamentalist evangelical to believe that humans are the result of Darwinian evolution or for a coal miner to believe that climate change is real and human-made) must be ignored or denied, at peril of disrupting the relationships. But among all Americans, the intensity of social networks has declined in recent years. Church attendance and union membership, participation in community organizations, and direct political involvement have flagged. Conservatives come disproportionately from rural areas and small towns, where social networks remain smaller, but denser and more homogeneous than in the big cities that liberals dominate. As a result, the opinions of family, friends, and community may be more potent in conservative hotbeds than in the more anonymous big cities where Democrats dominate.
The lack of shared reality between left and right in America today has contributed greatly to our current political polarization. Despite occasional left forays into reality denial, conservatives are far more likely to accept misinformation and outright lies. Deliberate campaigns of misinformation and conservative preferences for information that fits in with their pre-existing ideology provide only a partial explanation. Faulty reasoning and judgment, rooted in the interactions between modes of reasoning and judgment shared by all with the specific personality patterns found disproportionately among conservatives may also play a central role.
by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles
Mon Nov 06 15:04:29 PST 2017
On Sunday morning, a man opened fire on a congregation at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. According to the most recent count, the gunman killed at least 26 people. The attack, which is the 378th mass shooting in 2017, was met online with a mixture of sadness and cynicism. Many felt deflated by the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, Congress and the White House remain unwilling to consider gun control.
President Trump, who is currently traveling in Asia, explained why he thinks gun control is definitely not the problem when he answered questions about the shooting on Monday morning:
Mental health is your problem here. This was a very—based on preliminary reports—a very deranged individual. A lot of problems over a long period of time. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn’t a guns situation. I mean, we could go into it, but it’s a little bit soon to go into it. ... But this is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event. It’s—these are great people, and a very, very sad event. But that’s the way I view it.
There’s a lot about the president’s statement—and others like it—that just doesn’t add up. For one, it plays into the trope that the main thing we should blame for gun violence is not guns but mental illness, even though the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent (though they do have higher rates of self-harm and suicide). This tendency likely stems from the desire to name our demons, but if you’re looking for a better way to categorize perpetrators of gun violence, your best bet would be to label them “toxically angry.” Many of them seem to suffer from an inability to regulate their emotions, not exactly a mental illness in the traditional sense. It also increasingly seems that many share a history of domestic abuse, using their partners or family members as an outlet for all that aggression long before they grab a gun and head to a church or a school or a movie theater.
In a way, Trump’s decision to evoke mental illness makes some sort of sense: Given what we know about anger, it seems possible that providing people struggling with anger issues the right mental health care could help (though given the ban on studying gun violence, we don’t really know that much for certain). But just like with gun control, it’s not like Trump is actually working to improve America’s policies around his new scapegoat of choice.
In February, Trump signed into a law a bill repealing an Obama-era policy designed to limit access to guns among people with certain mental illnesses. The law, which received its fair share of criticism, would have required the Social Security Administration to flag some people receiving disability benefits for background checks should they try to buy a gun. Trump made this choice because it “could endanger the Second Amendment rights of law abiding citizens,” according to a statement from the White House at the time.
The plan to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which the president promises will continue in the new year, jeopardizes mental health care access for those who need it most. In the past few months, the Republicans in Congress have tried to cut away at certain health care coverage requirements they don’t like, including the mandate to provide maternity care and, yes, basic mental health services. Right-wing leaders have also worked to roll back the Obama-era Medicaid expansion, which is the largest source of mental health and substance abuse treatment in the country. The program, which currently provides more than 1 million struggling Americans with care, is one of the only sources of federal support for Americans caught up in the opioid crisis. Trump’s plan to combat that crisis, released late last month, did not meaningfully expand access to mental health care or treatment programs, either—instead he’s peddling the same “just say no“ rhetoric that failed the Reagan administration.
The shooting at the First Baptist Church, like so many other mass shootings in the United States, is not an inevitable result of someone having a “mental health issue.” It’s a gun issue, an anger issue, a social issue—all problems that could have policy-based solutions. Unfortunately, Trump has no plan to stem this tide regardless of what he thinks is to blame.
by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles
Thu Nov 16 14:02:32 PST 2017
On Monday, I reported that Todd Heatherton, an expert on the psychology of self-control and one of three Dartmouth neuroscientists now under criminal investigation for sexual misconduct, allegedly groped a 21-year-old graduate student at an academic conference in February 2002. On Wednesday, a former colleague of Heatherton’s—Jennifer Groh, now a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University—posted details of a separate alleged groping incident from the same winter. Groh says she reported that incident to Dartmouth’s associate dean of social sciences a few days after it happened. A few months later, the school provided Heatherton with a prestigious named professorship.
Groh summarized this episode in an Oct. 14 email to Dartmouth’s dean of faculty and the school’s vice president for institutional diversity and equity. She sent that email after learning that Heatherton—along with colleagues Bill Kelley and Paul Whalen—had come under scrutiny this year for what the school has variously described in statements as “sexual misconduct” and “serious misconduct.” Groh says that after sending that email, she subsequently shared her story with both Dartmouth’s investigator and representatives of local law enforcement. On Wednesday, she posted a copy of her email to a private Facebook page. The Valley News of West Lebanon, New Hampshire, first reported on this posting Wednesday evening.
The alleged incident that Groh described happened during a graduate recruiting event for the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences in 2002. Multiple former students and faculty members who spent time at PBS have told me these events were occasions for excessive drinking. One professor remembers bottles of whiskey being passed around, and his colleagues doing shots with grad school applicants. A former student in the department recalls a recruit getting “blasted out of his mind” and vomiting. “They were applauding it,” this student said. “They were like, ‘This guy’s definitely coming.’ ”
Groh was not present at the recruiting event in 2002; she says she first heard stories about the incident from other members of the faculty. The alleged victim met with her in private a few days later, Groh says, for a “very solemn” conversation. According to Groh, this graduate student told her that Heatherton had placed his hands on both her breasts at the event, while at the same time criticizing her performance in the lab. “ ‘You’re really not doing very well,’ ” Groh remembers the student saying, quoting the words Heatherton had allegedly said to her.
A few days after speaking with the graduate student, Groh says, she described the alleged incident to the associate dean for social sciences, Richard Wright. She doesn’t remember the details of their conversation but says she got the sense that she “was not the first person to tell him about it,” and that “he felt the behavior was inappropriate.” She did not hear anything further on the matter, and she was not aware of any formal response from the administration. (Wright declined to comment.)
Another former member of the faculty in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences says he was aware in 2002 of the allegation that Heatherton had groped a graduate student, and that he was also aware that Groh had reported it. “I knew that story, and was familiar with that story, before [Groh] posted it [on Wednesday],” he told me. “Her story is consistent with my recollection.”
On Wednesday, Dartblog published a statement from one of Heatherton’s attorneys. It read, in full:
Dartmouth was aware of this incident 15 years ago, investigated it, and determined it was accidental and totally unintentional—not a sexual touching at all. Therefore, the College determined that there was no need for any disciplinary action.
There is absolutely nothing in Todd’s personnel file about this.
Heatherton’s attorneys provided Slate with the same statement, adding that “neither [Heatherton] nor his attorneys are going to answer other questions.”
Groh’s response to the statement: “The student conveyed to me that she was touched on both breasts with both hands. She conveyed that she perceived it as inappropriate.”
Within a few months of the alleged incident, Heatherton received the school’s Champion International Professorship—an honor that is “intended to recognize and reward members of the Dartmouth faculty whose teaching is true to the highest standards of Dartmouth’s educational mission and whose scholarship has contributed to the advancement of knowledge in their chosen fields.” The title comes with a “modest research stipend,” a Dartmouth representative said on Thursday.
Groh was upset to learn of this appointment. “I was immensely frustrated and disappointed,” she told me.
The alleged incident between Heatherton and the graduate student would come up again in 2005, when Groh was up for tenure. Heatherton had taken over as chairman of the department, and Groh—who asserts that she’d been very successful at securing grant funding—felt her promotion was being unfairly delayed. In the meantime, Bill Kelley, who had arrived at Dartmouth three years after she did, was given tenure. “I felt that was fishy,” she says. It occurred to her that her reporting of the alleged incident from 2002 might have been one of several factors in her tenure being delayed. She filed a complaint with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, and, according to Groh, a formal investigation was launched. Groh doesn’t remember if she brought up the 2002 report specifically in her complaint. The woman who Groh says led this investigation, Michelle Meyers, has since died. The director of Dartmouth’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity at the time of this complaint did not respond to an interview request. A Dartmouth representative said the school “cannot comment on the details of a personnel matter” and that the tenure process is confidential.
Groh says her tenure case went very smoothly after she filed that complaint with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity. Heatherton stepped down from his role as department chairman in October 2005, after just one-and-a-half years in the position. Associate Dean for Social Sciences Michael Mastanduno announced that move in an email to PBS faculty. (Groh provided me with this email.) Mastanduno’s message did not mention the complaint against Heatherton. In light of “an extraordinarily complex set of opportunities” for the department, the email said, Heatherton agreed that “it is best that he step down as Chair prior to the end of his expected term so that he can focus on [a multi-laboratory neuroscience grant], his own research, and the social brain sciences initiative.” Mastanduno also asked the faculty “to join [him] in thanking Todd [Heatherton] for his outstanding efforts on behalf of the department.” Heatherton remained the school’s Champion International professor until 2010, at which point he was named the Lincoln Filene professor of human relations, a title he holds today.
Groh left Dartmouth in 2006. “It wasn’t a good fit for me professionally, and it wasn’t a culture that I wanted to be a part of,” she told me.
Update, Nov. 18, 6:55 p.m.: Todd Heatherton’s name has been removed from web pages relating to the two psychology textbooks he co-authored for W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Psychological Science, written with Michael Gazzaniga and Diane Halpern, first came out in 2003, with a sixth edition due out next year. Psychology in Your Life, written with Gazzaniga and Sarah Grison, was first published in 2015 and is now in its second edition. Heatherton is no longer listed among the authors of these books at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, or WWNorton.com, though his name appears on the covers of those books, and can be found on cached versions of some bookseller web pages. Meanwhile, Heatherton’s author page on the W. W. Norton website now lists only the defunct Canadian edition of Psychological Science. A cached version of that page from earlier this month includes the American editions of both books. Neither W. W. Norton nor Heatherton has responded to a request for comment.
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by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles
Fri Jan 12 11:55:49 PST 2018
SpaceX and Northrop Grumman are not having a good week. On Sunday, SpaceX launched a secret military satellite called Zuma from Florida into orbit. But the satellite, built by Northrop Grumman and owned by the U.S. government for classified purposes, was nowhere to be seen once SpaceX’s rocket carried the payload into space. At this point, the one thing that is clear is that Zuma failed to make it to orbit.
SpaceX quickly denied blame, with company COO Gwynne Shotwell releasing a statement saying its flagship Falcon 9 rocket “did everything correctly on Sunday night.” This is supported by the fact that the payload adaptor that works to release the satellite into orbit was not provided by SpaceX (as is common for most of the company’s missions), but by Northrop Grumman.
So if the adaptor failed to release the payload, then the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket dragged the satellite back through Earth’s atmosphere unwittingly, and Northrop Grumman would be the party to blame for losing a government satellite reportedly worth as much as a billion. (For its part, the company has not publicly commented on the Zuma debacle, except to say: “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions.”)
The mystery of who’s to blame makes for a nice bit of drama that’s often missing from the space industry, but the truth is that while the failure of this mission cannot be understated, it’s actually not really that surprising. And that really comes down to the fact that getting to space is hard.
There were 91 launch attempts in 2017, and six were failures. That’s not high, but it’s significant. Imagine booking a flight and knowing there was a 6.6 percent chance it might crash. You’d probably cancel your trip and go back to binge-watching The Crown.
And that’s because there’s an incomprehensibly long list of things that could go wrong during launch, which SpaceX is no stranger to after a Falcon 9 exploded in midflight in 2015 and a launch pad test in 2016 destroyed both a rocket and a half-billion dollar Facebook satellite. Both of those events are quick examples of how small anomalies or flaws can cascade into disastrous results. And that’s understandable, because the sheer nature of launching things into space is a literally explosive process.
In addition, this is far from the first time an expensive satellite has been lost. Russia, the country whose Sputnik 1 was the first satellite ever launched, lost contact with a $45 million satellite just last year, and that’s just the latest in a long string of launch failures to plague the country in recent years. Japan lost contact with a $250 million astronomy satellite a month after launch in 2016. Closer to home, the U.S. military lost contact with a reconnaissance satellite in 2006 shortly after launch and had to shoot it down two years later.
Sunday’s failure is going to hurt a lot more than those other losses, but perhaps it’s the high-profile development that might push the space industry forward in the long run. Rocket scientist and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin told NBC News he compares the risks of spaceflight today to the risks of air travel in its infancy and that running more launches and missions will inevitably help teach all launch parties how to conduct safer space travel.
In addition, this might also be the incentive we need to push for more radical approaches to satellites. The advent of 3-D printing technology means we might soon just build our satellites directly in space and avoid the potential mess (and insane costs) that come with a rocket launch and payload deployment.
Nevertheless, the risks to any satellite will never fully go away.
Earth’s orbit will always be an unstable region for any object, thanks to continued atmospheric drag, solar wind, gravitational influences from outside Earth, the nuanced physics we still have a shaky grasp of. When it comes to space, there will always be a host of factors that can turn a routine mission into an aggravating setback.
by Evelyn Lamb @ Slate Articles
Thu Jan 04 12:54:00 PST 2018
Update, Jan. 4, 2018: On Wednesday, the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search announced that a computer owned by Jonathan Pace in Germantown, Tennessee, discovered a new prime number. At 23,249,425 digits, the number, known as M77232917, is now the largest known prime.
In 2016, I wrote the following article about the previous largest known prime, which is now the second largest known prime. Its name is M74207281, and it’s about a million digits shorter than the shiny new prime. But other than a few details about whose computer found it and exactly how long it is, I could have written this article today about the new prime. So we’re sharing it with you again.
It’s exciting to find a new largest known prime number, but this is another verse of the same song. Both numbers, like nine of the 10 largest known prime numbers, have a special form and are called Mersenne primes. We find them because that’s where we keep looking. The light is better there. Between these two largest known primes lie an unfathomable number of monstrously large primes; we may never find even one.
Original, Jan. 22, 2016: Earlier this week, BBC News reported an important mathematical finding, sharing the news under the headline “Largest Known Prime Number Discovered in Missouri.” That phrasing makes it sound a bit like this new prime number—it’s 274,207,281-1, by the way—was found in the middle of some road, underneath a street lamp. That’s actually not a bad way to think about it.
We know about this enormous prime number thanks to the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search. The Mersenne hunt, known as GIMPS, is a large distributed computing project in which volunteers run software to search for prime numbers. Perhaps the best-known analogue is SETI@home, which searches for signs of extraterrestrial life. GIMPS has had a bit more tangible success than SETI, with 15 primes discovered so far. The shiny new prime, charmingly nicknamed M74207281, is the fourth found by University of Central Missouri mathematician Curtis Cooper using GIMPS software. This one is 22,338,618 digits long.
A prime number is a whole number whose only factors are 1 and itself. The numbers 2, 3, 5, and 7 are prime, but 4 is not because it can be factored as 2 x 2. (For reasons of convenience, we don’t consider 1 to be a prime.) The M in GIMPS and in M74207281 stands for Marin Mersenne, a 17th-century French friar who studied the numbers that bear his name. Mersenne numbers are 1 less than a power of 2. Mersenne primes, logically enough, are Mersenne numbers that are also prime. The number 3 is a Mersenne prime because it’s one less than 22, which is 4. The next few Mersenne primes are 7, 31, and 127.
M74207281 is the 49th known Mersenne prime. The next largest known prime, 257,885,161-1, is also a Mersenne prime. So is the one after that. And the next one. And the next one. All in all, the 11 largest known primes are Mersenne.
Why do we know about so many large Mersenne primes and so few large non-Mersenne ones? It’s not because large Mersenne primes are particularly common, and it’s not a spectacular coincidence. That brings us back to the road and the street lamp. There are several different versions of the story. A man, perhaps he’s drunk, is on his hands and knees underneath a streetlight. A kind passerby, perhaps a police officer, stops to ask what he’s doing. “I’m looking for my keys,” the man replies. “Did you lose them over here?” the officer asks. “No, I lost them down the street,” the man says, “but the light is better here.”
We keep finding large Mersenne primes because the light is better there.
First, we know that only a few Mersenne numbers are even candidates for being Mersenne primes. The exponent n in 2n-1 needs to be prime, so we don’t need to bother to check 26-1, for example.* There are a few other technical conditions that make certain prime exponents more enticing to try. Finally, there’s a particular test of primeness—the Lucas–Lehmer test—that can only be used on Mersenne numbers.
To understand why the test even exists, let’s take a detour to explore why we bother finding primes in the first place. There are infinitely many of them, so it’s not like we’re going to eventually find the biggest one. But aside from being interesting in a “math for math’s sake” kind of way, finding primes is good business. RSA encryption, one of the standard ways to scramble data online, requires the user (perhaps your bank or Amazon) to come up with two big primes and multiply them together. Assuming the encryption is implemented correctly, the difficulty of factoring the resulting product is the only thing between hackers and your credit card number.
This new Mersenne prime is not going to be used for encryption any time soon. Currently we only need primes that are a few hundred digits long to keep our secrets safe, so the millions of digits in M74207281 are overkill, for now.
You can’t just look up a 300-digit prime in a table. (There are about 10297 of them. Even if we wanted to, we physically could not write them all down.) To find large primes to use in RSA encryption, we need to test randomly generated numbers for primality. One way to do this is trial division: Divide the number by smaller numbers and see if you ever get a whole number back. For large primes, this takes way too long. Hence there are primality tests that can determine whether a number is prime without actually factoring it. The Lucas-Lehmer test is one of the best.
The heat death of the universe would occur before we could get even a fraction of the way through trial division of a number with 22 million digits. It only took a month, however, for a computer to use the Lucas-Lehmer test to determine that M74207281 is prime. There are no other primality tests that run nearly as quickly for arbitrary 22 million–digit numbers.
How many primes have we missed by looking for them mostly under the Lucas-Lehmer street lamp? We don’t know the exact answer, but the prime number theorem gets us close enough. It makes sense that primes get less common as we stroll out on the number line. Fully 40 percent of one-digit numbers are prime, 22 percent of two-digit numbers are prime, and only 16 percent of three-digit numbers are. The prime number theorem, first proved in the late 1800s, quantifies that decline. It says that in general, the number of primes less than n tends to n/ln(n) as n increases. (Here ln is the natural logarithm.)
We can use the prime number theorem to estimate how many missing primes there are between M74207281 and the next smallest prime. We just plug 274,207,281-1 into n/ln(n) and get, well, a really big number. We can write it most compactly by stacking exponents: 10107.349. This number has about 22,338,610 digits, give or take a couple, so we can also write it as 1022,338,610.
Another visit to the prime number theorem shows there are approximately 1017,425,163 primes less than the next-largest known prime. That sounds impressive until you realize 1017,425,163 is less than 0.000000000001 percent of 1022,338,610.
Stop and think about that for a moment. There are about 1022,338,610 primes less than M74207281, and approximately all of them are between it and the next-largest known prime. If you want to be charitable, you could say we have some gaps in our knowledge of prime numbers. But really, it makes more sense to say we have gaps in our lack of knowledge. The millions upon millions of prime numbers we’ve already found make up approximately 0 percent of the primes that are less than M74207281. Each one is a little grain of sand, a speck that does little to cover up our overwhelming ignorance of exactly where the prime numbers live.
Correction, Jan. 22, 2016: This story originally referred to a possible prime number as 2n-1. That number should have been rendered as 2n-1. (Return.)
by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles
Wed Jan 03 02:45:03 PST 2018
Ten years ago last fall, Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam published an alarming scoop: The truth was useless.
His story started with a flyer issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to counter lies about the flu vaccine. The flyer listed half a dozen statements labeled either “true” or “false”—“Not everyone can take flu vaccine,” for example, or “The side effects are worse than the flu” —along with a paragraph of facts corresponding to each one. Vedantam warned the flyer’s message might be working in reverse. When social psychologists had asked people to read it in a lab, they found the statements bled together in their minds. Yes, the side effects are worse than the flu, they told the scientists half an hour later. That one was true—I saw it on the flyer.
This wasn’t just a problem with vaccines. According to Vedantam, a bunch of peer-reviewed experiments had revealed a somber truth about the human mind: Our brains are biased to believe in faulty information, and corrections only make that bias worse.
This supposed scientific fact jibed with an idea then in circulation. In those days of phantom Iraqi nukes, anti-vaxxer propaganda, and climate change denialism, reality itself appeared to be in danger. Stephen Colbert’s neologism, truthiness—voted word of the year in 2006—had summed up the growing sense of epistemic crisis. “Truth comes from the gut,” Colbert boasted to his audience. “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.”
Back then it seemed as though America had slipped the moorings of her reason and was swiftly drifting toward a “post-fact age.” Scholar Cass Sunstein blamed the internet for this disaster: Online communities, he argued, could serve as “echo chambers” for those with shared beliefs. Then came Vedantam’s piece, with real-life data to support the sense that we all were flailing in a quicksand of deception and that the more we struggled to escape it, the deeper we would sink into the muck.
Writing in Slate last year, former professional fact-checker Jess Zimmerman remembered Vedantam’s article as “my first ‘lol nothing matters’ moment,” when she realized her efforts to correct the record might only make things worse. Another nothing-matters moment followed one week later, when Vedantam told WNYC about a different study. A pair of political scientists had given 130 students a mocked-up news report on a speech about the invasion of Iraq that described the country as “a place where terrorists might get weapons of mass destruction.” Half the subjects then read a correction to that news report, noting that the CIA had found no evidence of such weapons in Iraq. For students who were politically conservative, the correction didn’t work the way it should have; instead of making them more suspicious of the idea that Saddam Hussein had been hiding WMDs, it doubled their belief in it.
News about this research made its way to Slate, the Wall Street Journal, This American Life, la Repubblica in Rome, and several hundred other media outlets around the world. Sunstein cited the result—an “especially disturbing finding,” he declared—in his next book on the nature of extremism.
The study of corrected news reports, like the work on vaccine myths, helped provide a scientific framework for our growing panic over facts. Now we had a set of interlocking theories and experiments on which to hang the claim that truth was being vanquished from democracy—that the internet divides us, that facts will make us dumber, and that debunking doesn’t work. These ideas, and the buzzwords that came with them—filter bubbles, selective exposure, and the backfire effect—would be cited, again and again, as seismic forces pushing us to rival islands of belief.
Ten years on, the same scientific notions have now been used to explain the rise of Donald Trump. The coronation of the man who lied a thousand times, a champion of “alternative facts,” had brought us from the age of truthiness to the era of post-truth—2016’s word of the year. In a span of several weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Slate announced that “It’s Time to Give Up on Facts,” Rolling Stone declared “The End of Facts,” the New Yorker told us “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” and the Atlantic ran through “the facts on why facts alone can’t fight false beliefs.” These lamentations continued unabated throughout 2017. Just two weeks ago, Facebook said it would no longer flag phony links with red-box warnings, since pointing to a lie only makes it stronger. The truth, this move implied, does more harm than good.
But there’s a problem with these stories about the end of facts. In the past few years, social scientists armed with better research methods have been revisiting some classic work on the science of post-truth. Based on their results, the most surprising and important revelations from this research—the real lol-nothing-matters stuff—now seem overstated. It may be that the internet does not divide us, that facts don’t make us dumber than we were before, and that debunking doesn’t really lead to further bunk.
In fact, it may be time that we gave up on the truth-y notion that we’re living in a post-truth age. In fact, it may be time that we debunked the whole idea.
We didn’t need some lab experiment to tell us that the truth is often unpersuasive and that it’s hard to change a person’s mind. But that’s not what the end-of-facts researchers were saying. Their work got at something far more worrisome: a fear that facts could blow up in all our faces and that even valid points might reinforce a false belief.
This is not a small distinction. If the truth were merely ineffective, then all our efforts to disperse it—through educational websites, debunking flyers, and back-and-forths on Facebook—would be at worst a waste of time. But what if the truth had a tendency to flip itself around? In that case, those same efforts might be tugging people in the wrong direction, pulling them apart. Even if the tugs were very slight, the effect could multiply in terrifying ways—a million tiny forces from a million tiny arguments that added up to a tidal wave of disagreement.
In 2007, an example of this boomerang phenomenon seemed to be unfolding in real time. Polls showed Americans were more likely to describe then–presidential candidate Barack Obama as a Muslim than a member of any other faith. A related set of smears had oozed across the country via Fwd: Fwd: emails, asserting that Obama joined a Christian church to hide his madrassa past, that he wouldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, and that he’d been sworn into the Senate on a copy of the Quran.
In the face of all this faulty information, journalists tried redoubling their focus on the facts. Two weeks before Vedantam wrote his Washington Post piece on the dangers of debunking, the Tampa Bay Times’ Bill Adair launched PolitiFact. Two weeks after, the Post’s Glenn Kessler started his weekly “Fact Checker” column, with its Pinocchio rating scheme. Yet the checkers sensed that certain lies about Obama were resistant to their efforts or were maybe even fueled by them. “The number of Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim has gone up,” a nonplussed Adair told NPR in March 2008. “It was 8 percent back in November. The latest poll, it’s up to 13 percent.”
How could this be happening? Norbert Schwarz, the psychologist whose work on dispelling myths about the flu vaccine had been described in Vedantam’s piece, thought he had the answer. Based on the data he’d collected with his postdoc Ian Skurnik, it seemed to him Obama’s denial of a Muslim past would only make the rumors worse.
Schwarz helped draft a memo to the Obama campaign, sharing this advice. By that point he’d joined a secret panel of advisers to the candidate, a group that included Sunstein as well as several winners of the Nobel Prize. This group—which would later be dubbed an “academic dream team”—had been formed to supply Democratic candidates with cutting-edge research on the psychology of messaging. “In no case should you say that Obama is not a Muslim, since repeating it will only cause a backlash,” Schwarz says he advised the campaign. Instead, Obama should emphasize the fact that he is a Christian and that he brings his family to church.
The dream team never got explicit feedback on this memo, but it did seem to Schwarz that the campaign was heeding his advice. In early 2008, Obama began to focus on pronouncements of his Christian faith and his devoted membership in Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. This would backfire in spectacular fashion: In mid-March, a controversy erupted over unpatriotic sermons from that church’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
Schwarz recounts this wistfully, as “an interesting illustration of what can happen when you make the correct recommendation in a world that you have no control over.” In any case, after the election, the boomerang theory of debunking was established as a rule of thumb. In November 2011, a pair of cognitive psychologists in Australia, Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, published an eight-page pamphlet they called “The Debunking Handbook,” on the “difficult and complex challenge” of correcting misinformation. They cited work from Schwarz and Skurnik, among others, in describing several ways in which debunkings can boomerang or backfire. Arriving when it did, in the middle of the post-fact panic, their handbook satisfied a pressing need. Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, called it “a treasure trove for defenders of reason.” The liberal website Daily Kos said it was a “must read and a must keep reference.” Its text would be translated into 11 languages, including Indonesian and Icelandic.
“The existence of backfire effects” have “emerged more and more over time,” Lewandowksy told Vox in 2014. “If you tell people one thing, they’ll believe the opposite. That finding seems to be pretty strong.”
If you tell people one thing, they’ll believe the opposite. This improbable idea had been bouncing around the academic literature for decades before Schwarz and others started touting it. The first hints of a boomerang effect for truth emerged in the early 1940s, as the nation grappled with a rash of seditious, wartime rumors. Newspaper fact-check columns, known as “rumor clinics,” sprang up in response to the “fake news” of the time—the claim, say, that a female munitions worker’s head exploded when she went to a beauty parlor for a perm. The rumor clinics spelled out these circulating falsehoods, then explained at length why they were “phony,” “sucker bait,” or “food for propageese.” But experts soon determined that these refutations might be dangerous.
By January 1943, mavens at America’s “rumor-scotching bureau,” the Office of War Information, told the New York Times that debunkers could “make a rumor worse by printing it and denying it in the wrong manner.” Shortly thereafter, an Austrian émigré and sociologist named Paul Lazarsfeld published the results from his seminal study of Ohio voters. Lazarsfeld, who was based at Columbia University’s Office of Radio Research, found these voters had been awash in a “flood of propaganda and counterpropaganda” about the candidates running for president in 1940—but that they’d mostly filtered out the facts they didn’t care for. Like-minded voters tended to communicate only among themselves, he said, which in turn produced “a mutual strengthening of common attitudes,” to the point that even rival facts might only “boomerang” and reinforce their original views.
More examples of the boomerang effect would be presented in the years that followed. In 1973, for example, psychologists presented evidence that the social message of the TV sitcom All in the Family had backfired. The show’s creators aimed to skewer and rebut the attitudes of its central character, the bigot Archie Bunker. But when scientists surveyed high school students in a Midwest town, they found that the most prejudiced teenagers in the group were the ones most likely to be watching Archie every week. “The program is more likely reinforcing prejudice and racism than combating it,” the researchers concluded.
Another famous study, published in 1979, found a boomerang for environmental messages. Researchers in Arizona passed out flyers at a public swimming pool that featured one of three messages: “Don’t Litter,” “Help Keep Your Pool Clean,” or “Obey Pool Safety Rules.” The “Don’t Litter” message seemed to backfire and make the garbage problem worse: Half the people who received that flyer tossed it on the ground, as compared with just one-quarter of the people who’d received the other messages.
In a classic paper, also out in 1979, Stanford psychologists Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper got at the related concept of motivated reasoning. For that study, which has since been cited thousands of times, they presented undergraduates with conflicting data on the efficacy of the death penalty. They found that the exact same information would be interpreted in different ways, depending on how the subjects felt before the research started. The net effect of their experiment was to make the students more convinced of their original positions—to polarize their thinking.
Thirty years later, as a fresh array of boomerang or backfire effects made its way to print, psychologists Sahara Byrne and Philip Solomon Hart reviewed the science in the field. Their paper cites more than 100 studies of situations where “a strategic message generates the opposite attitude or behavior than was originally intended.” The evidence they cite looks overwhelming, but as I sorted through the underlying literature, I began to wonder if some of these supposed boomerang effects might be weaker than they seemed.
Take the Archie Bunker paper. When the same psychologists ran their survey on a second group of people up in Canada, they did not find the same result. And going by subsequent research on the TV show, published in the 1970s, it seemed that Archie’s antics on All in the Family may have helped diminish prejudice, not increase it.
The study of the poolside flyers, which Byrne and Hart called “one of the most famous research examples of the boomerang effect,” also seemed a little flimsy. The original paper goes through three versions of the same experiment; where the first one seems to show a real effect, the others look like replication failures, with no clear evidence for backfire.
As I poked around these and other studies, I began to feel a sort of boomerang effect vis-à-vis my thinking about boomerangs: Somehow the published evidence was making me less convinced of the soundness of the theory. What if this field of research, like so many others in the social sciences, had been tilted toward producing false positive results?
For decades now, it’s been commonplace for scientists to run studies with insufficient sample sizes or to dig around in datasets with lots of different tools, hoping they might turn up a finding of statistical significance. It’s clear that this approach can gin up phantom signals from a bunch of noise. But it’s worse than that: When researchers go out hunting subtle, true effects with imprecise experiments, their standard ways of testing for significance may exaggerate their findings, or even flip them in the wrong direction. Statistician (and Slate contributor) Andrew Gelman calls this latter research hazard a “type-S” error: one that leads a scientist to assert, with confidence, a relationship that is actually inverse to the truth. When a scientist makes a type-S error, she doesn’t end up with a false positive result so much as an “anti-positive” one; she’s turned the real effect upside down. If she were studying, say, the effect of passing out flyers at a public pool, she might end up thinking that telling people not to litter makes them litter more, instead of less.
It’s easy to imagine how these type-S errors might slither into textbooks. A scientist who found an upside-down result might go on to make a novel and surprising claim, such as: If you tell people one thing, they’ll believe the opposite; or facts can make us dumber; or debunking doesn’t work. Since editors at top-tier scientific journals are often drawn to unexpected data, this mistake might then be published as a major finding in the field, with all the press reports and academic accolades that follow. Gelman, for his part, thinks type-S errors might not be the problem here—that the real issue could be that different people might respond to something like a “don’t litter” flyer in different ways in different contexts, for reasons researchers don’t understand. But no matter the underlying reason, in an environment where surprising data thrive and boring studies wither in obscurity, a theory based on boomerangs will have a clear advantage over other, more mundane hypotheses.
The first study highlighted by the Post’s Vedantam—the piece of research that helped kick off the modern wave of post-fact panic—is a mess of contradictions.
In late 2004 or early 2005, Ian Skurnik showed a set of undergrads the CDC’s poster about flu vaccine “facts and myths.” According to a data table from a draft version of the study posted on the website of co-author Carolyn Yoon, Skurnik found the students’ memories were very good when they were tested right way: They labeled the flyer’s “myths” as being true in just 3 percent of their responses. Thirty minutes later, though, that figure jumped to 13 percent. By that point, they’d grown foggy on the details—and the flyer’s message backfired.
This made sense to Skurnik and his colleagues. He already knew from prior research that the more you hear a thing repeated, the more reliable it seems: Familiarity breeds truthiness. Now the study of the flyer suggested this effect would hold even when the thing you’ve heard before has been explicitly negated. Imagine a debunking like one shown on the CDC flyer: The flu shot doesn’t cause the flu. Over half an hour, Skurnik’s study argued, the word doesn’t fades away, while the rest of the message sounded ever more familiar—and thus more true.
His CDC flyer data suggested this all happens very quickly—that debunking can boomerang in minutes.
But that notion didn’t fit with data from another study from the same researchers. For that earlier experiment, published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2005, Skurnik, Yoon, and Norbert Schwarz looked at how college students and senior citizens remembered health claims that were labeled either “true” or “false.” The team found no sign of backfire among the college students after 30 minutes or even after three days. (They did find a boomerang effect for older subjects.)
Meanwhile, the study of the CDC flyer never made its way into a peer-reviewed academic journal. (The research would be summarized in an academic book chapter from 2007.) Vedantam’s write-up for the Post, which claims the study had just been published in a journal, seems to have conflated it with the paper published two years earlier, saying the CDC flyer had been presented both to younger and older subjects and at both a 30-minute and three-day delay.
I asked Skurnik, who’s now an associate professor of marketing at the University of Utah, why his famous flyer study never ended up in print. He said that he and Schwarz had submitted it to Science, but the influential journal decided to reject it because the work had already been described by the New York Times. (I could find no such story in the Times.)
As Skurnik moved along in his career, he says, he allowed “that line of research to get on the back burner.” When others tried to reproduce his research, though, they didn’t always get the same result. Kenzie Cameron, a public health researcher and communications scholar at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, tried a somewhat similar experiment in 2009. She set up her study as a formal clinical trial; instead of testing college undergrads as Skurnik, Yoon, and Schwarz had done, she recruited a racially diverse group of patients over the age of 50, selecting only those who hadn’t gotten vaccinated in the prior year. She mailed each of her subjects a version of the CDC flyer a week before they were due to come in for a checkup. Some of these flyers listed facts and myths in simple statements, others listed only facts, and still others gave specific refutations of the false information.
Cameron had her subjects tested on their knowledge of the flu vaccine on two occasions, once before they’d seen the flyers and again when they came in to see their doctors. She found that every version of the flyer worked: Overall, the patients ended up more informed about the flu vaccine. In fact, the version of the CDC flyer that was closest to the one that Schwarz and Skurnik used ended up the most effective at debunking myths. “We found no evidence that presenting both facts and myths is counterproductive,” Cameron concluded in her paper, which got little notice when it was published in 2013.
There have been other failed attempts to reproduce the Skurnik, Yoon, and Schwarz finding. For a study that came out last June, Briony Swire, Ullrich Ecker, and “Debunking Handbook” co-author Stephan Lewandowsky showed college undergrads several dozen statements of ambiguous veracity (e.g. “Humans can regrow the tips of fingers and toes after they have been amputated”). The students rated their beliefs in each assertion on a scale from 0 to 10, then found out which were facts and which were myths. Finally, the students had to rate their beliefs again, either after waiting 30 minutes or one week. If Skurnik, Yoon, and Schwarz were right, then the debunkings would cause their answers to rebound in the wrong direction: If you tell people one thing, they’ll believe the opposite. But the new study found no sign of this effect. The students’ belief in false statements dropped from a baseline score of 6 down to less than 2 after 30 minutes. While their belief crept back up a bit as time went by, the subjects always remained more skeptical of falsehoods than they’d been at the start. The labels never backfired.
A second study from Ecker and Lewandowsky (along with Joshua Hogan), also out last June, found that corrections to news stories were most effective when they repeated the original misinformation in the context of refuting it. This runs counter to the older theory, that mere exposure to a lie—through a facts-and-myths debunking flyer, for example—makes it harder to unseat. The authors noted that the traditional logic of “effective myth debunking may thus need to be revised.”
In other words, at least one variation of the end-of-facts thesis—that debunking sometimes backfires—had lost its grounding in the data. “I’ve tried reasonably hard to find [this backfire effect] myself, and I haven’t been able to,” Ecker told me recently. Unless someone can provide some better evidence, it may be time to ask if this rule of thumb from social science could represent its own variety of rumor: a myth about how myths spread.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler described their study, called “When Corrections Fail,” as “the first to directly measure the effectiveness of corrections in a realistic context.” Its results were grim: When the researchers presented conservative-leaning subjects with evidence that cut against their prior points of view—that there were no stockpiled weapons in Iraq just before the U.S. invasion, for example—the information sometimes made them double-down on their pre-existing beliefs. It looked as though the human tendency to engage in motivated reasoning might be worse than anyone imagined. (Eventually this would form the basis for another section of “The Debunking Handbook.”)
With an election looming in the fall of 2008, Nyhan and Reifler’s work went viral in the media. (The final version of their paper would not be published in an academic journal until 2010.) Vedantam wrote up their findings for the Post, and the story spread from there. It soon became the go-to explanation for partisan recalcitrance. “Perception is reality.
Facts don’t matter,” wrote Jonathan Chait in the New Republic, linking up the new research to presidential candidate John McCain’s “postmodern” disregard for truth. “If [Nyhan and Reifler’s] finding is broadly correct,” Chait wrote, “then the media’s new-found willingness to fact-check McCain will only succeed in rallying the GOP base to his side.”
Political scientists were just as taken by the Nyhan-Reifler findings. A pair of political science graduate students at the University of Chicago, Tom Wood and Ethan Porter, found the study dazzling. “It really stood out as being among the most provocative possible claims” about the science of public opinion, Wood told me in a recent interview. He and Porter had been reviewing old research on how we’re more responsive to the facts that support our pre-existing points of view. The new paper took this idea a full step further. “It said that your factual ignorance could actually be compounded by exposure to factual information,” Wood says. The implications for democracy were calamitous.
By the time he and Porter had funding for their own study of this phenomenon, in 2015, the idea had grown in scope. Aside from all the media coverage, papers had by then been published showing that the facts could boomerang when Republicans were told that Obamacare’s “death panels” didn’t exist or that climate change could lead to more disease. And the original Nyhan-Reifler paper had become a “citation monster,” Wood says. “It’s four times as cited as any comparably aged paper from the same journal.”
He and Porter decided to do a blow-out survey of the topic. Instead of limiting their analysis to just a handful of issues—like Iraqi WMDs, the safety of vaccines, or the science of global warming—they tried to find backfire effects across 52 contentious issues. Their study would provide corrections of false statements from Hillary Clinton on the effects of gun violence, for instance, and from Donald Trump on the rate of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. They also increased the sample size from the Nyhan-Reifler study more than thirtyfold, recruiting more than 10,000 subjects for their five experiments.
In spite of all this effort, and to the surprise of Wood and Porter, the massive replication effort came up with nothing. That’s not to say that Wood and Porter’s subjects were altogether free of motivated reasoning.
The people in the study did give a bit more credence to corrections that fit with their beliefs; in those situations, the new information led them to update their positions more emphatically. But they never showed the effect that made the Nyhan-Reifler paper famous: People’s views did not appear to boomerang against the facts. Among the topics tested in the new research—including whether Saddam had been hiding WMDs—not one produced a backfire. “We were mugged by the evidence,” says Wood.
Meanwhile, Columbia University graduate students Andy Guess and Alex Coppock were chewing over a similar idea: If you tell people one thing, will they end up believing the opposite? Guess and Coppock had come across the 1979 study by Lord, Ross, and Lepper, which showed that adding facts to a discussion of the death penalty only curdles students’ disagreements. But when the grad students looked more closely at that old paper, they were appalled. “We realized it was not a properly randomized experiment,” says Guess.
“We thought it was BS,” says Coppock.
In 2014, the two of them updated the classic study using what they thought was better methodology. Where Lord, Ross, and Lepper tested 48 undergrads on their views about capital punishment, Guess and Coppock assessed that question with the help of 683 subjects recruited via the internet. For follow-up experiments, they tested how different kinds of evidence affected the views of another 1,170 subjects on the minimum wage, and 2,122 more on gun control. In none of these conditions did they find evidence that people grew more stubborn in their views when presented with disconfirming information.
Instead, the studies showed what Coppock calls “gorgeous parallel updating,” by which he means that people on either side of any issue will adjust their beliefs to better fit the facts. If boomerangs occur, he says, they’re the exception, not the rule. The backfire effect “is a truth-y hypothesis,” he told me. “It feels right, that arguing with idiots just makes them stupider.”
Guess also began to wonder about a third axiom of truthiness: Is it really the case that the internet divides us?
For all the influence of the echo chamber theory, Guess found there was not a lot of real-world data to support it. In 2015, he gained access to a potent data set from an online polling firm, which included three weeks’ worth of website tracking for almost 1,400 individuals, tagged with their demographic info and political affiliations. That meant Guess could test the echo chamber theory in the wild—and he found it didn’t hold. Other recent studies—one by Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse M. Shapiro; another by Jacob L. Nelson and James G. Webster—have supported this result: News consumption on the internet does not appear to be as fractured as we thought.
It wasn’t that the standard work on “partisan exposure” had been wrong. Like-minded people do tend to congregate on social networks, said Guess, and they tend to gab about whatever suits their group. But this clumping up and screening out is not unique to online settings; it happens just as much when we get together in the offline world, watch TV, or scan headlines at the newsstand.
Nor are the basic facts about persuasion all that controversial. Yes, people do engage in motivated reasoning. Yes, it’s true that we prefer to cling to our beliefs. Yes, we do give extra credence to the facts we’ve heard repeated. But each of these ideas has also spawned a more extreme (and more disturbing) corollary—that facts can force the human mind to switch into reverse, that facts can drive us even further from the truth. It’s those latter theories, of boomerangs and backfires, that have grown in prominence in recent years, and it’s those latter theories that have lately had to be revised.
Even as new facts accumulate in the science of post-facts, the field will likely be slow to change its course. Norbert Schwarz, for one, has been a vocal critic of the replication movement in social psychology, comparing those who question old ideas to global warming denialists: “You can think of this as psychology’s version of the climate-change debate,” he told Nature in 2012, when doubts emerged about research into social priming. “The consensus of the vast majority of psychologists closely familiar with work in this area gets drowned out by claims of a few persistent priming skeptics.”
Skeptics of the boomerang effect have also run afoul of consensus thinking in their field. Guess and Coppock sent their study to the same journal that published the original Lord, Ross, and Lepper paper in 1979, and it was rejected. Then it was passed over four more times. “We’ve reframed it over and over,” Coppock says. “It’s never rejected on the evidence—they don’t dispute the data. It’s that they don’t believe the inference, that backlash doesn’t happen, is licensed from those data.” As a result, their work remains in purgatory, as a posted manuscript that hasn’t made its way to print. (Guess has only just submitted his paper re-examining the echo chamber theory; it’s now under review for the first time.)
Wood and Porter’s study also faced a wall of opposition during the peer review process; after two rejections, it was finally accepted by a journal just last week.
I asked Coppock: Might there be echo chambers in academia, where scholars keep themselves away from new ideas about the echo chamber? And what if presenting evidence against the backfire effect itself produced a sort of backfire? “I really do believe my finding,” Coppock said. “I think other people believe me, too.” But if his findings were correct, then wouldn’t all those peer reviewers have updated their beliefs in support of his conclusion? He paused for a moment. “In a way,” he said, “the best evidence against our paper is that it keeps getting rejected.”
While some colleagues have been reluctant to believe that backfire effects might be rare or nonexistent, there are some notable exceptions. Nyhan and Reifler, in particular, were open to the news that their original work on the subject had failed to replicate. They ended up working with Wood and Porter on a collaborative research project, which came out last summer, and again found no sign of backfire from correcting misinformation. (Wood describes them as “the heroes of this story.”) Meanwhile, Nyhan and Reifler have found some better evidence of the effect, or something like it, in other settings. And another pair of scholars, Brian Schaffner and Cameron Roche, showed something that looks a bit like backfire in a recent, very large study of how Republicans and Democrats responded to a promising monthly jobs report in 2012. But when Nyhan looks at all the evidence together, he concedes that both the prevalence and magnitude of backfire effects could have been overstated and that it will take careful work to figure out exactly when and how they come in play.
Nyhan has been a champion of the replication movement and of using better research methods. He’s written up the newer data on debunking, and the evidence against the echo chamber theory, for the New York Times. And he’s the one who pointed me to the work from Guess and Coppock, calling it “impressive and important.” In terms of reckoning with recent data, says Nyhan, “it would be ironic if I dug in my heels.”
Yet even if boomerangs turn out to be unusual, he says, there’s little cause for optimism. Facts are, at best, “sometimes mildly effective” at displacing grabby lies, and corrections clearly aren’t working “if the standard is getting rid of misperceptions in the world.”
Ullrich Ecker, the debunking expert who failed to reproduce Schwarz and Skurnik’s finding on the boomerang effect for facts and myths, agrees with Nyhan. “If there’s a strong motivation to hold on to a misconception, then often the corrections are ineffective. Whether or not they backfire, that’s up for debate,” he says. “But look, if it’s ineffective, that’s pretty much the same story as if there’s a small backfire effect.”
There’s a vast difference, though, between these two scenarios. In a world where fact-checking doesn’t work, we may get caught in knots of disagreement. In a world where facts can boomerang, those knots may tighten even as we try to pull away. One is frustrating to imagine. The other is horrifying.
Why, then, has the end-of-facts idea gained so much purchase in both academia and the public mind? It could be an example of what the World War II–era misinformation experts referred to as a “bogie” rumor—a false belief that gives expression to our deepest fears and offers some catharsis. It’s the kind of story that we tell one another even as we hope it isn’t true. Back then, there were bogie rumors that the Japanese had sunk America’s entire fleet of ships or that thousands of our soldiers’ bodies had washed ashore in France. Now, perhaps, we blurt out the bogie rumor that a rumor can’t be scotched—that debunking only makes things worse.
Or it could be that our declarations of a post-truth age are more akin to another form of rumor catalogued during the 1940s: the “pipe dream” tale. These are the stories—the Japanese are out of oil; Adolf Hitler is about to be deposed—we tell to make ourselves feel better. Today’s proclamations about the end of facts could reflect some wishful thinking, too. They let us off the hook for failing to arrive at common ground and say it’s not our fault when people think there really is a war on Christmas or a plague of voter fraud. In this twisted pipe-dream vision of democracy, we needn’t bother with the hard and heavy work of changing people’s minds, since disagreement is a product of our very nature or an unpleasant but irresolvable feature of our age.
It’s time we came together to reject this bogus story and the ersatz science of post-truth. If we can agree on anything it should be this: The end of facts is not a fact.
by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles
Thu Dec 21 13:58:48 PST 2017
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had banned certain scientific words from use at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to an unnamed, outraged CDC source, higher-ups instructed staffers to avoid seven phrases in budget documents: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based. In the days since, editorials have likened this to censorship in China, Cuba, and Belarus; to Polish laws prohibiting certain language to describe the Holocaust; and to the totalitarian regime described in 1984.* Follow-up reports said the “irrational and very dangerous” policy on budget language might put “millions of lives in danger” with its “an astonishing attack on reality-based medical treatment.”
But if reality is indeed in danger here, it’s not because of Donald Trump. The story of the language rules at CDC has quickly broken free of underlying facts. Despite what you may have heard, the alleged “ban” of seven words does not reveal a secret “War on Science” carried out by thought police in Washington; nor is it some evil plot to “enforce a political and ideological agenda,” as the Washington Post editorial board suggested. A more sober measure of this soggy crumb of news—one that’s, well, evidence-based rather than reflexive—suggests it should be understood as a byproduct of the Trump administration’s much-less-secret war on science funding. It appears that the ban is an attempt by bureaucrats to save their favorite projects from unforgiving budget cuts.
That explanation would be consistent with what’s been reported to this point. According to CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, “There are no banned, prohibited or forbidden words at the CDC—period.” Meanwhile, anonymous sources at the Department of Health and Human Services told the National Review’s Yuval Levin this week that any language changes did not originate with political appointees, but instead came from career CDC officials who were strategizing how best to frame their upcoming budget request to Congress. What we’re seeing, his interviews suggest, is not a top-down effort to stamp out certain public-health initiatives, like those that aim to help the LGTBQ community, but, in fact, the opposite: a bottom-up attempt by lifers in the agency to reframe (and thus preserve) the very work they suspect may be in the greatest danger.
Reports about the seven dirty words at CDC should be understood in light of that budgetary process. Right now, the Trump administration is in the middle of preparing its fiscal 2019 request, to be submitted to Congress this coming February. It’s likely that the staffers at each agency at HHS have already submitted their proposals for how much money they think they need, for which specific projects, along with “budget narratives” explaining why. These, in turn, have probably been passed up to the budget team for the whole department, aggregated and sent on to the Office of Management and Budget in the White House. Now the OMB is trying to combine proposals from across the federal government into one colossal document to be reviewed by lawmakers.
There are internal negotiations at each step, says Stuart Shapiro, professor of public policy at Rutgers University and a former OMB employee. The OMB may demand steeper cuts from budget staffers at HHS, for example; HHS may send specific feedback down to CDC with suggestions for where and how to trim. This scrutiny is likely to be extra intense this year, given the Trump administration’s extraordinary steps to reduce government spending. In its first budget request delivered last May, the White House called for cuts of $1.2 billion from the CDC, $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health, and $2.5 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency. (For comparison, the last Republican president, George W. Bush, proposed increasing NIH funding by $2.8 billion in his first budget request and cutting funds for the EPA by $500 million.)
HHS staffers have been telling those at CDC and other agencies that it would be better to avoid any phrases that might attract extra notice from the budget-slashers higher up the chain. This is tactical advice: They want to bolster the CDC’s position during these negotiations. Levin suggests that words like vulnerable, entitlement, or diversity might annoy Republicans in Congress and make them less inclined to grant requested funds. But it seems more likely that the same advice is meant to ward off cuts from OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and his team of budget hawks; after all, they’ve been more tight-fisted than even congressional Republicans. (The latter rejected the Trump administration’s most dramatic cuts to science spending earlier this year.)
While back-and-forth discussions about budget documents may be normal, Shapiro says current staffers’ wariness of potential trigger words such as entitlement seems like something new. It’s also indicative of where we are today: Given this administration’s zeal for shrinking government and the radical polarization of political debate, it makes sense that bureaucrats would be doing whatever they can think of to protect their work from scrutiny. That is to say, their censorship is both strategic and self-imposed.
That may help explain why the list of forbidden phrases is so peculiar. Its haphazard composition hints at something other than a secretive attempt to stifle free expression in the government; to me, it reads more like some left-leaning functionary’s best guess about the words that might be banned by the White House, if the White House were to bother banning words. A few entries on the list make sense: It’s easy to imagine the Trump administration pushing back on uses of transgender, for example. But what about a word like fetus? That would seem to be a pretty useful term to have at your disposal, whatever your position on the ethics of abortion. And what of science-based and evidence-based? Those phrases don’t support any one political agenda; if anything, they’re maddeningly generic and easily abused by either side. (According to the Post, one senior CDC official told the staff that science-based and evidence-based should be abandoned because they’ve been overused.)
Some will argue that censorship can still be dangerous, even when it’s not imposed. That’s clearly not the case in this scenario. What we’re seeing from the CDC is not an effort to suppress unwelcome research, but rather an effort to conceal it under euphemism. If there is a secret plot at work in any of these lexical decisions, it’s aimed at simple-minded White House hacks and ideologues in Congress. Staffers have been advised to swap out the phrase science-based, for instance, for a more elaborate and confusing sentence: “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.” Similarly, we’ve learned in recent months that staffers at the EPA have been rebranding satellites that help keep track of climate change as those that study “weather,” and that they’ve elected to replace the phrase “climate change” with “climate resiliency” in documents. We’ve heard that a director at the Department of Agriculture advised her team that carbon-sequestration and greenhouse-gas reduction should instead be described as “building soil organic matter” and “increasing nutrient use efficiency.” “We won’t change the modeling,” the director told them, “just how we talk about it.”
It matters that this bullshit has been bubbling up from within the rank-and-file instead of raining down upon them. That is to say, it’s the scientists who have been using doublespeak to manipulate their bosses, not vice-versa.
Yet journalists have reported on these middle-management directives as if they were new and shocking evidence of the Trump administration’s sneaky plan to interfere with scientific research. In a follow-up story published Thursday, the Post puts the ban on words at CDC in the context of “a linguistic battle [waged] across official Washington, seeking to shift public perception of key policies by changing the way the federal government talks about climate change, scientific evidence and disadvantaged communities.”
The invocation of a secret war on science, or “1984-ish thought control,” doesn’t fit the fact that many of the language changes are coming from the lifelong bureaucrats and not their political overlords. Even when these changes are delivered from on high, it’s not clear how far the practice strays from that of prior administrations. Thursday’s story in the Post points out that directed euphemisms are the norm in Washington: Barack Obama’s budget team, for example, swapped out the “global war on terror” for what it called “overseas contingency operations.” It may be that the Trump team’s efforts in this area have been more aggressive (or cartoonish) than those that came before—but they’re all related.
In any case, it’s not like no one knows what our current president has been up to in the broader sense. You don’t have to search for secret anti-science signals in agency proceedings when he’s putting climate-change skeptics in control at the EPA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Interior, and leaving one-third of the most important science posts vacant. And there’s not much point to parsing adjectives in budgetary language when the most recent budget calls for cuts to science by the billions.
For all the blatancy of this administration, we’re still obsessing over red-alarm reports about its use of scientific language—which words are in and which are out. In October, for example, the Nation reported on the DOI’s new strategic plan. Surely it would have been jarring simply to describe that plan’s instrumental view of nature, with its firm avowal of “American energy dominance” and suggestion that millions of acres of public lands and waters may soon be auctioned off for oil and gas development. Yet in keeping with the trend for extraneous lexicographical analysis, the Nation story notes right up near the top that the new document makes no mention whatsoever of climate change, while the phrase turned up 46 times in a version put out under Obama; and also that it mentions conservation 25 times, compared to 74 in the Obama plan.
I agree it’s telling, in some way, that the department tasked with protecting America’s natural resources won’t even mention global warming once in its strategic plan, but does this information really add anything to what we knew already? Same goes for all that news—so much news—about the Trump administration’s efforts to excise every use of “climate change” or “global warming” from its official websites. We’ve heard these words have been “purged” from WhiteHouse.gov; that they’ve been “deleted” from NIH.gov; that they’ve been “scrubbed” from EPA.gov. If we claim those purges and deletions are informative, then what should we make of the fact that one can still find those phrases, climate change and global warming, on several of the sites from which they’ve supposedly been erased? Would we then conclude that the Trump administration is not perhaps as hostile toward the science of the climate as we’d thought?
Rather than endlessly track these proxy measures of corruption, we’d be better off closely watching things that happen in plain sight: the drastic paring back of environmental regulations; major cuts to public-health and science funding; rampant conflicts of interest in science leadership; and a blatant disregard for scientific expertise. These actions should freak you far more than any list of seven words self-censored by the CDC.
Correction, Dec. 22, 2017: This story originally stated that Polish laws that enforce Holocaust denial. The laws dictate that specific language be avoided in discussing the Holocaust. (Return.)
by Aaron Mak @ Slate Articles
Sun Dec 10 14:51:12 PST 2017
The seemingly docile avocado is, as it turns out, responsible for a growing number of mangled hands and emergency room visits. The variety of textures—sturdy and slippery skin, soft flesh, solid pit—can make cutting the buttery fruit a perilous endeavor.
Luckily for chefs who are squeamish about bloodying their hands, the British supermarket chain Marks and Spencer has begun selling a safety-conscious “cocktail avocado,” which has softer skin and no pit. At the moment, the avocado alternative is only available for sale to consumers in the UK.
The Guardian interviewed a food specialist at Marks and Spencer on the matter, who said, “We’ve had the mini, the giant, ready sliced and we’re now launching the holy grail of avocados—stoneless.”
In May, the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons issued a warning for “avocado hands,” which is the result of amateur cooks stabbing and slashing their hands when attempting to slice an avocado. The St. Thomas Hospital in the U.K. even claims they experience a “post-brunch surge” of such cases on Saturdays. The injury can require complex and expensive surgery in order to properly mend as tendon and nerve damage are not uncommon; the wife of a New York Times staffer reportedly racked up a $20,000 hospital bill after an avocado-related mishap. Simon Eccles, the secretary for the surgeons’ association, further suggested that the fruit come with warning labels.
The cocktail avocado, which is the fruit of an un-pollinated avocado blossom that develops without a seed, is slightly smaller (two to three inches in length) and easier to eat. Only available in December, the cocktail avocados grow in Spain and are usually reserved for the chefs of high-end restaurants in Paris.
Those who wish to partake can either eat it whole—the skin is edible—or peel it by removing one end and then squeezing the contents out. Safety comes at a price, however: one cocktail avocado costs around $2.70.
But for millennials who apparently spend exorbitant amounts on avocado toast, cocktail avocados might seem like a steal.
by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles
Mon Nov 13 15:27:09 PST 2017
Three tenured professors from the psychological and brain sciences department at Dartmouth College—Todd Heatherton, Bill Kelley, and Paul Whalen—are targets of a criminal investigation, according to official statements from Dartmouth’s president and the New Hampshire attorney general on Oct. 31. The school, which has variously described the allegations as referring to “serious misconduct” and “sexual misconduct,” had already launched its own internal investigation of the three men. Heatherton, Kelley, and Whalen are all on paid leave with restricted campus access, according to the statement from Dartmouth’s president. Heatherton also lost his affiliation at New York University, where he had been a visiting scholar since July.
Attorneys for Heatherton responded that their client “has engaged in no sexual relations with any student” and that he “is confident that he has not violated any written policy of Dartmouth, including policies relating to sexual misconduct and sexual harassment.” They also claim that the investigations into Heatherton are limited to an unspecified “out-of-state matter” and unrelated to the conduct of the other two professors. Kelley and Whalen have not issued any statements and did not respond to interview requests for this story.
A public accounting of the allegations has yet to emerge. (On Friday, Dartmouth’s president refuted the idea that they involved the unethical treatment of research subjects.) But Simine Vazire, a tenured professor of psychology at the University of California–Davis (and one-time Slate contributor), says that several weeks before news of the criminal investigation broke, she learned from a colleague that Dartmouth was seeking information about potential sexual misconduct by its faculty. She reached out to the chair of the psychological and brain sciences department and was connected with an external investigator. On Oct. 17, she told that investigator about an episode from early 2002, in which she alleges Heatherton groped her at an academic conference.
That incident occurred at a waterfront hotel in Savannah, Georgia, she says, where more than 1,300 people had gathered for the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Vazire, who was then a 21-year-old graduate student, was attending one of her first major conferences. Standing in a circle of students and faculty members outside a banquet hall, she found herself beside Heatherton, then in his early 40s and a full professor at Dartmouth. The two had not been introduced. Without saying a word, Vazire says, Heatherton reached his hand behind her, out of view of the others, and squeezed her butt. Erik Noftle, a psychology professor who dated Vazire in the early 2000s, confirms that she described the incident to him a year after it allegedly occurred, in 2003.
Vazire says she wasn’t that upset by the encounter. “This one ass-grabbing, it was just kind of a blip on the radar,” she told me. In sharing her experience, Vazire wanted to make it very clear that she didn’t consider her story of being groped at an academic conference on par with more grievous forms of sexual harassment, nor did she want it to overshadow the pending results of the investigations by Dartmouth and the New Hampshire attorney general. Still, she says the memory has stuck with her, as a first experience of the rampant, casual harassment that pervades the field of psychology and academic science as a whole.
“I do not remember touching her in any way at a conference 15 years ago,” Heatherton said via email. “I have just recently heard of this for the first time, but, if I touched her as she described, all I can say is that I am profoundly sorry.”
Heatherton added that he first remembers meeting Vazire in 2011 and that they have had “a collegial, but distant relationship.” He noted that Vazire emailed him in 2011 to recommend one of her female honors students “who is going to be applying to graduate school with you.” This student confirmed to me that Vazire wrote the email on her behalf but says Vazire also informed her about what had allegedly occurred between her and Heatherton in 2002. The student did not end up attending Dartmouth.
A 2010 survey of female earth scientists found that more than half had experienced sexual harassment in the course of their careers. According to a 2014 study, more than one-quarter of female archaeologists said they’d experienced unwanted physical contact while conducting field research. And a much older study, published in 1986, noted that 31 percent of female graduate trainees in clinical psychology reported receiving sexual advances from at least one male teacher or supervisor; among those women, 71 percent viewed the advances as “coercive.” Several high-profile cases of sexual misconduct by prominent academic scientists have also come to light in recent years. At the University of California–Berkeley, astronomer Geoff Marcy resigned last year after the school found that he had violated sexual harassment policies repeatedly between 2001 and 2010. (Marcy apologized on his website.) In August, the University of Washington fired microbiologist Michael Katze after an investigator found that he had, among other things, created a quid pro quo sexual relationship with one employee and asked another to email escorts on his behalf. This fall, eight people filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the University of Rochester for failing to act appropriately against computational linguist T. Florian Jaeger and alleging that Jaeger engaged in a “long pattern of predatory sexual behavior.” Jaeger, who is on administrative leave pending the results of a new investigation, has noted that the fact that he’s been placed on leave does not constitute an admission of guilt.
Even as a first-year grad student in 2002, Vazire knew Heatherton was an academic star with considerable prestige and power. “I was still young enough to have very idealistic images of famous people in the field,” she says. By that time, Heatherton had published almost 60 peer-reviewed papers, and as the chairman of SPSP Convention Committee, he’d helped establish the group’s annual conference. After the 2001 SPSP meeting, Heatherton crowed to colleagues about its lively and stimulating atmosphere and the ample sales recorded at the cash bar.
Heatherton made his name by studying feelings of guilt and self-control and by helping to devise a model of willpower as a muscle that can be exercised until exhaustion. In particular, he has studied how people restrain themselves from engaging in undesirable behavior. “Is self-regulation failure a matter of lazy self-indulgence … or is it a matter of being overcome by powerful, unstoppable forces?” he asked in a 1996 review of this research. He and his co-author ended that paper with a gloomy observation: “The norms and forces that currently dominate modern Western culture seem generally conducive to weakening self-control,” they wrote. “As long as this is the case, it seems likely that our society will continue to suffer from widespread and even epidemic problems that have self-regulatory failure as a common core.”
Not long before his run-in with Vazire, Heatherton had co-written a book chapter with his graduate student Jennifer Tickle and colleague Mikki Hebl on the psychology of awkward moments. “Awkward moments have far-reaching consequences in the lives of both stigmatized and nonstigmatized individuals,” they wrote.
Starting in the early 2000s, Heatherton ventured into a booming subfield in his discipline, based around the use of magnetic-resonance imaging to capture changing blood flow in the brain. At Dartmouth, he became a leading member of a research group that applied this technique, fMRI, to the study of social psychology. In theory, he could now identify portions of the brain that would “activate” in response to temptation, guilt, awkwardness, or whatever else one might choose to study. On the basis of this research, the exercise of self-control would be construed, in his later work, as a struggle between rival brain areas.
Dartmouth made a huge investment in fMRI technology in September 1999, opening a four-story, $27 million building devoted to the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, or PBS. Dartmouth was the first liberal arts school in the country to have its own scanner dedicated to experimental brain research. A few years later, PBS helped bring in the largest peer-reviewed grant in the history of the institution: $21.8 million to establish a Center for Cognitive and Educational Neuroscience.
PBS was a major power center on campus. By 2002, its most famous member—Michael Gazzaniga, the father of cognitive neuroscience—was serving as the dean of faculty at Dartmouth, having replaced another neuroscientist, Jamshed Bharucha, in that position.* Heatherton served as chair of the department in 2004 and 2005, and he worked closely with Gazzaniga, co-authoring a leading academic textbook, Psychological Science, in 2003. Kelley was recruited to the department in 2000; he and Heatherton became friends and regular scientific collaborators. Whalen arrived at PBS in 2005.
As the department’s influence grew, tensions developed at the college. A report from the Student Assembly, based on input from 800 students and 30 faculty members and titled “The Soul of Dartmouth,” decried the school’s excessive focus on research, singling out PBS for special blame.
The department also had a reputation for rambunctiousness. Over the last week, I’ve reached out to dozens of current and former faculty members, postdocs, graduate students, research technicians, and lab fellows who spent time at PBS during this period or passed through for talks or summer sessions. Many ignored my requests or declined to be interviewed. Most of those who agreed to share their experiences would only do so on condition that their names would not be mentioned in connection with this story. But their stories generally converged on several major points. The culture at PBS was characterized by heavy drinking, multiple sources said, as well as an unusual degree of socializing between faculty and students. Several described a “good old boys” vibe that could be inhospitable to women. An undergraduate who worked in a PBS lab from 2002 to 2004 said “the culture of the department was always very masculine and competitive.”
Elise Temple, who was an assistant professor of education at Dartmouth from 2007 to 2010, with a joint appointment in the PBS department, said that Whalen and Kelley were very popular with graduate students and often partied with them. They would stay out late, Temple said, and encourage everyone to drink. “There was this juvenile attitude that was clearly just not professional,” explained Temple, who now directs the Consumer Neuroscience Group at the company Nielsen. “I remember, [the atmosphere] was like, ‘No, have another drink! Oh, come on, have another drink!’ Like a frat guy kind of thing.”
Temple acknowledged that it’s common for graduate students and faculty to have drinks together from time to time. But she said there was more of this behavior—drinking and socializing among mentors and trainees—at PBS than she’d seen at other institutions.
One member of the faculty from the early 2000s did tell me there wasn’t an unusual degree of partying, and a graduate student who arrived a few years later said the culture was “positive and professional.” Most accounts I heard, though, were more or less consistent with Temple’s. One former student called the level of alcohol use “pretty shocking” and described it as being “like night and day” compared with other psychology departments. People went out drinking after work as a matter of routine, this student claimed, and stayed out very late. A former graduate student at PBS said “partying” might be too strong a word but that there was “a lot of drinking with the professors.” Students made frequent trips to a local restaurant called India Queen after work, the graduate student said, and Kelley would be there “more often than not.”
Multiple sources said Heatherton was less involved in the program’s drinking culture than Kelley and Whalen. Via email, Heatherton said he didn’t think it was accurate to say the PBS department was characterized by heavy drinking or frequent socializing between graduate students and faculty. “I do my best not to socialize with graduate students outside of the work setting, as the mentoring relationship should remain professional,” he wrote, noting that his “main social contact” with graduate students occurs on the annual “Apple Pie Day” he hosts with his wife. He added: “Self-reflection has caused me to recognize that, on occasion, at conferences with other academicians I have consumed too much alcohol. On this I was not alone, but that is no excuse, and I have apologized for my behavior.”
In the mid-2000s, three of the department’s most promising young female professors—Abigail Baird, Jennifer Groh, and Jennifer Richeson—departed for other schools. Richeson would earn a MacArthur “genius” grant the year after leaving; Baird was named a “Rising Star in Psychological Science” in 2008; and Groh received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009. They now direct labs at Yale, Vassar, and Duke, respectively. Another more senior woman at Dartmouth, Laura-Ann Petitto, also left during this period. (None of these professors agreed to comment for this story.) By January 2007, the PBS website included just three women on its list of 16 faculty members. (The PBS website now lists eight women out of 28 faculty members.)
Heatherton notes that it’s not unusual for professors to switch institutions, adding that five male professors also left the department around the same time. One of those was Gazzaniga, who resigned his position as dean after a vote of no confidence from the Dartmouth faculty and then left for the University of California–Santa Barbara. Scott Grafton followed him to Santa Barbara shortly thereafter. A third departing scholar, Kevin Dunbar, was the partner of one of the women who left Dartmouth, Laura-Ann Petitto.
Since then, both Kelley and Whalen have been awarded tenure. Heatherton served as president of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in 2011. Under his direction, the society created a “Responsible Research Task Force” to “discuss the promotion of responsible conduct in social and personality psychology.” In 2016, Dartblog called Heatherton “one of the most respected researchers at the college.”
*Correction, Nov. 14, 2017: This piece originally misidentified Jamshed Bharucha as a former provost of Dartmouth. He served as deputy provost and as dean of faculty. (Return.)
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by Oliver Milman @ Slate Articles
Mon Nov 13 15:28:59 PST 2017
Deep schisms in the U.S. over climate change are on show at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany, where two sharply different visions of America’s role in addressing dangerous global warming have been put forward to the world.
Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement has created a vacuum into which dozens of state, city, and business leaders have leapt, with the aim of convincing other countries at the international summit that the administration is out of kilter with the American people.
The counter-Trump movement in Bonn is being spearheaded by Jerry Brown, the governor of California, and Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City. Brown, in particular, has assumed the role of a de facto U.S. leader, scheduling more than two-dozen events to agitate for renewable energy and emissions cuts to combat what he has called an “existential crisis.”
A U.S. Climate Action Center has been set up for delegates in Bonn, representing the climate change priorities of several thousand U.S. cities, states, tribes, and businesses. Corporate giants Mars, Walmart, and Citi are expected to push for action on climate change. The center is in lieu of an official U.S. presence—for the first time, the U.S. government won’t have a pavilion at the annual U.N. climate summit.
At the razzamatazz opening of the alternative U.S. center on Thursday, California state Sen. Ricardo Lara told the audience: “Greetings from the official resistance to the Trump administration.” Pausing for cheers and applause, he said: “Let’s relish being rebels. Despite what happens in D.C., we’re still here.”
Guests were served free jelly doughnuts and coffee. “It’s the least we can do after Trump’s announcement that we are leaving,” said one U.S. activist.
At 2,500 square meters, the alternative U.S. dome—which is marked with the hashtag #wearestillin—is the biggest pavilion at the climate talks. Organizers say it is probably the biggest for any U.S. group in the history of climate conference.
“It’s nice that it’s hard to miss. This is big because our movement is big,” said one of the organizers, Lou Leonard of WWF. “Here we show energy, momentum, and confidence. It would slow negotiations down if people in the halls were thinking the U.S. is not with them.”
Following recent decisions by Nicaragua and Syria to join the Paris pact, the U.S. stands alone as the only country in the world to oppose the deal.
“The U.S. is now split, and world opinion is going with the state and local players, rather than the federal player,” said Jonathan Pershing, who was the U.S. government’s special envoy on climate change until last year.
“The U.S. is at odds with every other country in the world, and yet we see it represented by a federal government as well as competing governors, mayors, and members of Congress. It reflects an enormous tension in the U.S. political system over climate change.”
The Trump administration has sent a delegation to Bonn, with the U.S. still officially engaged in implementing the Paris deal until it is able to exit in 2020. Thomas Shannon, an experienced state department diplomat who has previously voiced concern about climate change, is leading the U.S. delegation, assisted by Trigg Talley, who was Pershing’s deputy.
The White House has confirmed that the U.S. will promote the “efficient” use of coal, nuclear energy, and natural gas as an answer to climate change in a presentation to delegates in Bonn. Trump has vowed to revive America’s ailing coal sector, but this message is likely to provoke outrage on the global stage.
“It will raise hackles,” said Pershing. “It’s not an argument that people will accept internationally.”
Differences may sharpen next week when countries start to discuss financing plans, but so far observers say it has mostly been business as usual.
“We are seeing 196 parties trying to move forward and put the Paris accord into effect. They don’t want to let the U.S. impede that progress,” said David Waskow of the World Resources Institute.
But participants from other nations said the change is already apparent.
“It’s as though the U.S. negotiators have been dipped in aspic,” said one delegate. “They are scared stiff of upsetting the White House. They try to be constructive, but they don’t want that known.”
Another delegate said: “We have lost the leadership the U.S. used to provide. They have the best negotiating team, and they usually put forward strong arguments, but in talks this year, they have been quiet. You can feel they are a little lost. It must be so hard for them now. I sympathize.”
“I think it’s all going to be a little awkward,” said Sue Biniaz, a former state department official who was the lead U.S. lawyer at climate negotiations for two decades.
“In the past the U.S. was the leader and brought a lot of ideas to the table. That will be a loss. But other countries, rightly or wrongly, think the U.S. may stay in under some circumstances, so I wouldn’t expect too much hostility.”
A coalition of 14 U.S. states, including California and New York, have said they are on track to meet the U.S. target of a 26-28 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, compared with 2005 levels. The goal was set by Barack Obama’s administration as part of the Paris agreement between 195 nations to avoid dangerous global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius.
Brown has raised his profile in recent months by meeting China’s leadership to discuss clean energy technology and becoming a special adviser for states and regions during the Bonn talks.
On Tuesday, he met EU leaders in Brussels as a prelude to talks on how to link California’s cap-and-trade emissions system with the similar emissions mechanism used by the 28-state bloc. California has a legislated goal to cut its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
“We are truly facing a challenge unprecedented in human history,” Brown said in a speech to the European Parliament. “We have to completely transform to a zero-carbon world. We have to do it faster than most people are probably thinking about. 2050 is too late.”
In a nod to the clout of large U.S. states, Brown later included two of them when naming countries that could do more on climate change—“the United States, Texas, California, Russia, India.”
European leaders welcomed Brown’s words.
“The approach of Mr. Trump is not necessarily as helpful as it might be. But we are delighted to have Gov. Brown here because it shows there is a strong commitment from the U.S.,” said Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament.
However, governors such as Brown or Andrew Cuomo, his New York counterpart, cannot officially take the place of the U.S. president in U.N. climate talks. Their emissions pledges do not supersede the official U.S. position, and in any case, the 14 committed states only have influence over around half of total U.S. emissions.
Analysts have warned that without national leadership, the U.S. is in danger of missing its emissions reduction goals and will jeopardize international efforts to stave off 2 degrees Celsius of warming, which would lead to elevated sea level rise, intensified droughts, heat waves, and wildfires.
Brian Schatz, a Democratic senator from Hawaii who is attending the Bonn talks, said members of Congress, including Republicans, were concerned over how the withdrawal has hurt America’s standing in the world.
“If you show up at a climate conference to talk about coal, you’re likely to be ignored,” he said. “I think the ‘We Are Still In’ delegation will get more attention than the executive branch.
We’ve gone from the indispensable leader to being the only country not engaged in climate change. Many people in Congress are troubled not only from a climate standpoint but a geopolitical standpoint. China is happy to take that leadership from us.”
by Lisa L. Lewis @ Slate Articles
Thu Nov 30 10:02:19 PST 2017
I frequently exchange parenting advice with my sister, an emergency room physician whose kids are younger than mine. My advice tends to be pretty straightforward, like how to help your kids transition to a new school or just the occasional kid-friendly recipe. Hers, given her profession, tends to be a little more intense. Recently, she offered this useful guidance: If someone’s been shot in the leg, use the heel of your hand to slow the bleeding by pressing down on the femoral artery located in the middle of the crease at the top of the thigh. If the bleeding doesn’t slow or is pulsing, use a T-shirt or other piece of clothing to tie a tourniquet as close to the top of the thigh as possible.
Against the backdrop of ongoing mass shootings, being prepared for such a worst-case scenario seems increasingly prudent. It appears I’m not alone in thinking so: From Bismarck, North Dakota, to San Diego, ordinary citizens are now signing up for classes to learn how they, too, can maximize their chances for survival by learning skills such as how to stanch blood loss after a mass shooting. In Georgia, all public schools are receiving “Stop the Bleed” kits so they’ll have what they need while they wait for professional first responders to arrive. And last month in Washington, D.C., nearly 40 members of Congress were trained in bleeding control techniques. The training they received is modeled on life-saving techniques first honed on the battlefield but now being promoted for civilian use in schools, churches, shopping malls, and other everyday venues.
These sorts of lessons have been gathering steam for years. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings in December 2012, the American College of Surgeons pulled together first-response experts from law enforcement, the medical community, and the military. Their recommendations, known as the Hartford Consensus, stemmed from the realization that injuries from mass shootings are similar to those found in combat. The resulting five-point response plan was based in part on military trauma guidelines and led to the “Stop the Bleed” campaign, launched by the White House in 2015, to “encourage bystanders to become trained, equipped, and empowered to help in a bleeding emergency before professional help arrives.”
Mass tragedies often yield lessons that can be applied the next time around. Five months before Sandy Hook, the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado, showed the need for better coordination between responding police and firefighters. It also underscored that getting victims to the hospital as quickly as possible, rather than waiting for ambulances, saves lives.
In 2007, the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, led to improvements in campus safety, including requirements for emergency message systems and physical changes such as better door locks. And perhaps the seminal event that changed how we think about and respond to mass shootings was the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School, which led to regular school lockdown drills and changed how police respond to active shooters. (Instead of waiting for specialized backup to arrive, responding officers now enter the building immediately to try to stop the carnage.)
If you consider the chronology of these examples, it’s apparent that our reactions are skewing toward figuring out how to survive mass shootings rather than prevent them. Mass shootings such as the recent tragedy in Las Vegas are often what spur ordinary citizens to enroll in “Stop the Bleed” classes. In just the last two years, more than 70,000 Americans have taken the courses, according to the American College of Surgeons. In fact, a 2015 telephone poll of 1,000 respondents found that 82 percent of those who said they were physically able to take a course like this were interested in doing so.
Being prepared is pragmatic: According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 323 mass shootings (which they define as four or more people shot or killed, not counting the shooter) so far this year, including two just last week. Even my sister, despite all of her training, found herself searching online for bulletproof backpack inserts for her kids. Last year, the PTSA at my son’s high school, which was put on lockdown during the 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting, purchased body bags and triage center supplies to use in the event of a similar tragedy on school grounds.
It’s hard to know where the line is between prudent preparation and diminishing returns. Learning to tourniquet a bullet wound might make you feel safe. It could also make you feel anxious or diminish the reserves you have to fight gun violence in other ways. As the Hartford Consensus noted, “Active shooter/mass casualty events are a reality in modern American life.” What’s worse is that they’re an accepted reality.
by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles
Mon Nov 06 08:01:54 PST 2017
Stock photos are ubiquitous—and infamous. The concepts are often laugh-out-loud absurd. The models are disproportionately white, not to mention atypically young, beautiful, and able-bodied. Outdated gender norms seem to be readily reinforced. Article after article has shown that stock photographs generally suck. But the place where the limitations of stock photography are most obvious—and deserve special scrutiny—is in depicting mental and physical illness.
The area of most egregious offense is mental health (no surprise there). In stock imagery, almost everyone with a mental health issue can be reduced to a person, on the floor, with their head in hands. “Headclutcher” images are often “tagged” as representing multiple mental health issues, from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder, but there are some subtle subcategories, too. When I looked at these images on iStock and Shutterstock, two of the most popular stock photography sites on the web, I was struck by the difference between “head in hands with face obscured,” which seemed to indicate shame, and “head in hands with face visible,” which seemed to indicate some kind of internal struggle. Mental illness and depression featured a mix of both subcategories of the trope, but “head in hands” tagged as “addiction” really laid the idea of shame on thick.
Even if you don’t think it’s offensive (“Oh, it’s just a photo!”), many people do, especially those who are actually living with mental illness. The “headclutcher” theme and emphasis on psychic pain has been derided as a hackneyed approach to depicting the true diversity of mental illness. Get the Picture is one of several campaigns that aim to improve mental illness–related stock photos by providing better alternatives for free. It began in part as a reaction to the head-in-hands image trope, according to Rehaan Ansari, a medical student and model for the campaign:
The “headclutcher” is an unfair and inaccurate representation of what life is like with a mental health condition, but it’s often the image most commonly associated with people who experience them. It’s definitely time to change the backward attitude that mental health conditions are something to be ashamed of.
Physical illnesses and medical procedures are also dominated by a few visual themes. Search results for “cancer” on Shutterstock are dominated by women in groups wearing pink and grinning while “cancer” on iStock turns up images of women with their heads wrapped being comforted by loved ones. Photographers have similarly agreed on grabbing your lower back as the universal sign for kidney disease and grabbing your chest as the international image of a heart attack.
Surgery, meanwhile, is divided into a few camps: well-lit Grey’s Anatomy–style operating rooms; plastic surgery patients with Sharpie-lined skin; and a few close-ups of real surgeries—and the requisite blood and guts. Epidemiologists, meanwhile, have criticized the use of stock photography that emphasize large needles or feature crying children. While it might not look like much to you, experts worry it may dissuade people from getting vaccinated or reinforce the anti-vaccine attitudes people already harbor.
Still, the strangest results are definitely back in the mental health realm—for OCD. This query turned up an unusual number of images of people staring at their hands and chewing on their nails. While there are probably multiple factors at play, the reliance on this trope seems pretty simple: Nail biting is the most photogenic manifestation of OCD, so it’s popular with photographers.
Rich Legg, a stock photographer and stock image moderator, says the need for simplicity and some semblance of universality is precisely what makes stock photography so challenging. The whole goal of the industry is to create functional stereotypes. But stereotypes aren’t cool anymore, which has left stock photographers scrambling to create representative images that are infinitely applicable, but not so reductive they become offensive.
When it comes to OCD, that problem becomes quickly apparent. Nail biting is much easier to imagine than abstract issues like “compulsive thoughts.” So even though compulsive thoughts are much more central to an OCD diagnosis, nail biting quickly dominated our visual language for the disorder. (Maybe that’s for the best, given one top search result is a “comedic” take on OCD: A man cutting his lawn with kid-size scissors, ostensibly to make every single blade of grass the same height.)
We seem to increasingly agree that many stock photographs are silly at best and harmful at worst. But what do we do about it? While Legg says change won’t be easy, it’s already underway. In recent years, he and others have shifted their focus away from simple, pretty photos and instead prioritize photos that look realistic. A few years ago, Legg says he would call up the local modeling agency to get glammed-up 19-year-olds to play scientists in a rented lab space. But now he’s more deliberate about finding age-appropriate actors and doing additional research before potentially sensitive shoots. These days, he tries to take it one step further, using real people in some of his photoshoots instead of actors. A few years ago he was careful to ask a friend in nursing to advise on a photoshoot featuring an able-bodied girl in a wheelchair, but on a more recent shoot, he just asked someone who uses a wheelchair in real life to serve as his model.
Whether these more conscientiousness images are purchased and used at the same rates as their more stereotypical (but still commercially successful) counterparts remains to be seen. Because that’s the thing about stock photography: It’s not enough for photographers to simply change what they photograph, though that’s important. The real change has to come from the consumers, the people for whom these images are made. To ensure respectful and diverse photos, photographers will have to continue the self-reflection and experimentation—and we’ll all have to work a little harder to deconstruct the stereotypes we have in our heads.
by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles
Mon Dec 11 14:30:00 PST 2017
The Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality map of California is pretty scary looking right now: Rapidly disappearing green blobs show the last areas where the air is clear, while yellow, orange, and even red bubbles metastasize just north of Los Angeles, bringing irritants and toxic particles with them. The Rorschach image is the result of several wildfires ongoing in California, namely the record-breaking Thomas wildfire, which has been raging north of L.A. for a week and has already burned an area the size of New York City. In its wake, the Thomas blaze has left behind a plume of smoke—and the potential for health hazards that comes with it. Thanks to the prevailing winds, meteorologists say the air pollution is only going to get worse before it gets better.
Air quality maps are like a game of golf—the lower the score, the better the air. Right now, large swaths of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, from the central valley down to the Pacific coast, have been assigned air quality index scores over 100, triggering public health warnings across the state. Fresno’s AQI, for example, was hovering around 119, so officials have labeled the air “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” which include children, pregnant people, and the elderly. Santa Barbara, meanwhile, has an AQI of 188, and the air has been labeled unhealthy for everyone.
But what’s actually so harmful about the wind? And what does someone living under the blanket of smoke actually do about it?
Smoke carries microscopic particles that, above a certain density, can harm human health. The biggest particles can cause irritation to your eyes and nose, which is unpleasant, but the smallest of these particles do a lot worse. Called PM2.5, these minuscule particles can be one-thirtieth the width of a human hair or smaller, allowing them to be inhaled deep into the lungs. There, they can embed themselves in the tissues and exacerbate all kinds of diseases. People with asthma and other respiratory diseases are the first to notice—their breathing becomes even more labored, often triggering a trip to the emergency room—but other people are at risk, too. When the air quality is bad enough, even healthy people can suffer wheezing, phlegm, and inflammation.
Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done to clear the air. Cleansing the airspace over California will require time and the right winds. Right now, the opposite is happening, with winds coming in from the ocean and pushing the Thomas wildfire’s smoke up and over the state. But people can still take precautions. The EPA recommends people stay indoors as much as possible, with the windows closed and air conditioners, air filters, and air cleaners blasting. If you have to drive, it’s advisable to recirculate the air in the car by pushing that button in the center console of a car partially enveloped by a curving arrow. For people who elect to go outside, it’s recommended that physical activity is reduced. (Don’t go jogging outdoors right now.) And if you’re going to be out for a long time, wear a real particulate protection mask, because a surgical paper mask does absolutely no good.
by Zachary Siegel @ Slate Articles
Sun Oct 29 17:00:00 PDT 2017
Twenty-one months ago, presidential hopefuls from both parties descended on New Hampshire ahead of its primary, hearing in town halls and debates the same thing again and again: Save us. These voters cared little about plans for tax reform or the threat of ISIS. Instead, they asked potential candidates how they plan to tackle the opioid epidemic devastating their communities. There was no time to waste.
Thursday, nearly a year after his election as president, Donald Trump announced that the worsening opioid epidemic is a public health emergency—a far cry from declaring a national emergency, as he promised he would do at the recommendation of the advisory commission he created. What his lesser announcement means is that for the next 90 days, federal agencies can more freely use existing money to mitigate a crisis that currently kills seven Americans an hour. It does not include any additional funds. (Recall that the Zika virus was contained thanks to Congress’ approving an additional $1.1 billion in emergency funds—a fraction of what the opioid crisis needs.) The announcement has been celebrated by some as an important step toward raising awareness, but its ability to make a tangible impact is extremely limited.
If you can say anything about the opioid crisis, it’s that we’re aware of it. September was National Recovery Month, and with it came numerous projects by news outlets dedicated to showing us a worsening overdose crisis whose images we have by now become intimate with. Glamour’s 11-chapter “Women and Opioids” opened with a reconstructed scene of a young woman shooting up in her bathroom, only to immediately realize she was overdosing. The Cincinnati Enquirer delivered a deeply reported tick-tock, “Seven Days of Heroin,” which deployed some 60 reporters, photographers, and videographers around the Ohio city and its surrounding communities to show readers “what an epidemic looks like.” The New Yorker this month ran a photo essay about overdoses in an Ohio county, describing the deaths as having “become impossible to ignore.”
These projects are increasingly hard to stomach. Writer William S. Burroughs brutally portrayed the sicker side of heroin in his 1953 novel Junky, back when writing about drugs was literarily transgressive. By this point in the crisis, these scenes can feel sensationalized—doing more to stoke an emotional response than a spur to action. What does documenting “seven days of heroin” do, if it doesn’t also engage with how we could mitigate the death toll? How many times should we explain how we got here, without looking toward how we should get out?
I kicked heroin five years ago as a lanky, depressed 22-year-old. Since then, I’ve turned to research and journalism, obsessively trying to figure out why opioids kill more Americans year after year despite us being constantly told that all hands are on deck, from local activists to epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, annual heroin deaths have more than tripled since I kicked it in 2012. Heroin use increased the most—by more than 100 percent—among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2011 to 2013. I can pull out lots of numbers like this, but I doubt any of them will surprise you—after years of increasing pressure, we are finally, mind-numbingly, aware of the problem. The question, though, of how to solve it remains. We have good ideas, most of which are thoroughly outlined in the 2016 surgeon general’s report on addiction, which was mostly echoed by Trump’s recent opioid commission. Trump’s team is set to issue more formal recommendations next week, but given Thursday’s disappointing announcement, there is little sign this is a federal government moved to make the changes we need, whatever plan the commission announces on Wednesday. So the question becomes—the question that keeps me up at night—is: Can we force it to?
* * *
The opioid epidemic mirrors the AIDS epidemic in the scope of its tragedy. Both are stigmatized conditions, thought to only infect other people. Tens of thousands died before then–President Ronald Reagan made a peep about the virus—it was activists from ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, who forced his hand on the issue. Every day that his administration ignored its cries, ACT UP vowed to make a stink. And it did.
ACT UP got what it wanted. It fought for legislation and medical research to develop treatments, and now people with AIDS live long, healthy lives.
Both medicine and legislation are required to mitigate the deaths and harms of the overdose crisis. Both could be the focus of political activism. But there are a few major roadblocks to any kind of activist movement arising among the recovery community today. Our treatment is so bad, for one, it leaves an incredible number of people unequipped and disempowered from making their voices heard. And those who don’t end up needing clinical treatment have less motivation to speak up.
An ugly secret about the way America treats addiction is finally unraveling: It’s laughably unscientific, bordering on cruel. For one, there’s the cost of health care. The only reason I’m alive to write this is because my family provided me with what’s called “recovery capital.” My parents paid, out of pocket, tens of thousands of dollars to get me help. And even with their help, I was still treated at one of the most reputable facilities with outdated, confrontational therapies that tried to shame and embarrass the addiction out of me. In a two-year span across several states, I went to detox, outpatient, sober living, back to outpatient, then detoxed in a residential facility where I lived for 90 days before moving to a halfway house and finally back to sober living. Round and round. I learned more about how to kick in rehab by borrowing my friend’s copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger than I ever did from reading Alcoholics Anonymous–approved literature.
It’s a Kafkaesque ritual that has gone mostly unchanged since the 1950s, when the abstinence-based model of AA was first designed to treat cases of severe alcoholism. Today, a growing number of addiction specialists are rightfully critical of applying the abstinence model to people with an opioid use disorder. Mark Willenbring, former director of treatment research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, thinks it’s downright dangerous. “What do people do when they leave these places? They overdose and die,” he told me. Last year, I wrote in Slate how the majority of treatment centers withhold lifesaving medications such as methadone and buprenorphine, the only known treatments that have evidence backing their potential to cut mortality rates in half.
While the industry is finally being called out as a charlatan-filled racket, where hucksters committing insurance fraud abound, the whole residential model is flawed. “You don’t treat a chronic illness with 30 days of intensive rehab—that’s absurd,” said Willenbring, who after leaving the NIAAA started his own outpatient clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota. “These rehabs have ignored decades of taxpayer-funded research,” he told me. Research points in Willenbring’s favor. Studies repeatedly show residential rehab has no clinical benefit over less expensive outpatient settings that treat patients in their own communities. A widespread misconception among Narcotics Anonymous, the de facto support group for people with heroin addiction, is that being on methadone or buprenorphine means you’re not in “real recovery,” a nebulous distinction that sounds a lot like a Calvinist quest for purity and abstinence.
Maia Szalavitz, journalist and author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, has written about addiction and recovery for decades. She told me that like most movements, a lot of time in recovery advocacy is spent, unproductively, fighting one another. For example, the recovery community was against syringe-exchange programs during the AIDS epidemic, which Szalavitz says speaks to a long-standing rift between the 12-step, abstinence-based community and harm-reduction groups.
People who have co-occurring mental health disorders, especially ones that require medication, or who use treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine for opiate use disorder don’t always feel welcome in the recovery community. “I go to AA, but I was not allowed to share at meetings when I was on medication-assisted treatment,” said 47-year-old Francesca Kennedy, who has been going to meetings for more than 20 years in New York.
That the recovery process itself is so difficult means that even people who go through the process and succeed may not find clear communities on the other side—many people, rather than seeing the process as a badge of honor, instead remember it simply as something they endured. But according to oft-cited reports, there are about 23 million Americans “living in recovery.” It’s a huge number of people, most of whom should share common goals. So why aren’t we hearing from them?
One unique aspect of the opioid epidemic is that nothing united this group of people to begin with. Addiction affects all kinds of people, from all social classes, education levels, races, etc. Little is known about the political leanings of “people in recovery.” It’s likely they fall all over the map. While much attention has focused on the overdoses that cluster in rural areas affected by automation and deindustrialization, regions that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, overdoses appear to be happening everywhere.
Of course, that 23 million number includes all drug and alcohol use. There are obvious similarities between these experiences. Often, people with different kinds of addiction run into one another in rehabs and support groups. Someone who was addicted to stimulants can recover right next to someone who was addicted to heroin. It’s tempting to think that whether alcohol or heroin brought someone down, there is a shared experience over which people in recovery bond. But the extent to which this group can be unified at all has been a question among recovery advocates for decades—the most revered of whom is recovery historian William White, who has written more than 300 articles and 17 books on addiction, treatment, and recovery since 1969.
White has studied the identities of people diagnosed with substance use disorder and found three big, though not mutually exclusive, identity styles. According to White’s research, there is the loud-and-proud crowd for whom addiction “has become an important part of their personal identity.” Opposite this group is those who have internalized stigma: “Those whose addiction/recovery status is self-acknowledged but not shared with others due to a sense of personal shame derived from this status.” Between the two poles is a group who holds “recovery-neutral identities,” those who do not self-identify as alcoholics,” “addicts” or “persons in recovery.” (Depending on the situation, I probably straddle the neutral and proud groups.)
Forthcoming research led by John Kelly from Harvard’s Recovery Research Institute (which White collaborated on) adds concrete numbers to these three identities. The articles are still under peer review, but Kelly, the university’s first endowed professor in addiction medicine, told me they found 22.35 million Americans have resolved their drug or alcohol problems—close to the previously reported number. “Roughly half of those (46 percent) adopted a recovery identity,” Kelly said. This could be the loud-and-proud group, who may have had more severe addictions. “The other 54 percent did not adopt a recovery identity,” which could comprise a mix of the neutral or internalized-stigma group.
What are the implications of these findings? Kelly explained that those who’ve adopted the strong pro-recovery identity tend to be the ones who’ve had more severe addictions that required treatment. Kelly described this identity as self-preservative: “You have to remember you have a problem to stay in recovery from; otherwise you’ll be in trouble. There’s a lot more at stake with the severely addicted.” This is the group we think of when we imagine people struggling with addiction—but they aren’t always the loudest voices. For them, simply being in recovery is work enough, or even disabling. If you ask someone who’s been through an addiction that awful, he or she will tell you feeding it had become all-consuming.
But the most interesting finding of Kelly’s is that more than half of the 22 million people who resolved their addictions did so without utilizing any formal treatment or medications—not even self-help by way of AA. (This could explain why so many people don’t adopt recovery identities.) Previous epidemiological surveys have found similarly high rates of what’s called natural remission, or ending addiction with little to no help. We typically don’t hear stories from this group, which explains a stubborn misperception that if you had an addiction, it must have caused significant life problems and that treatment was necessary to beat it. That’s simply not the case for a majority of us.
White told me that any organizing movement “would have to acknowledge the legitimacy of a broader variety of [recovery] approaches, which is slowly happening.” Slow, indeed. Stigma likely plays a role in keeping even the neutrally identifying group from being vocal. But it’s also that these people don’t share their stories because they stopped using before their lives imploded. I know a dozen or so people with this kind of anti-climactic story, some I did heroin with or others whom I watched walk around dazed and forgetful from too many benzodiazepines. They recovered naturally and mostly unscathed. And they don’t talk about it today because, frankly, they don’t have much to say. This is the real, albeit less juicy, story shared by many of us who move through addiction. It’s hard, at this point, to imagine them marching in a rally.
* * *
If there are going to be activists, we may soon start to learn their names. One of the first “stars” might be Ryan Hampton, who directs social media for the addiction advocacy group Facing Addiction. I first heard of Hampton in January, when he mobilized a digital army against Arizona state Rep. Kelly Townsend. In a Facebook post, Townsend had blamed a spate of celebrity deaths—George Michael, Prince, Carrie Fisher—on their “druggie” lifestyles. Hampton screen-grabbed Townsend’s post before she deleted it and posted the insensitive status alongside Townsend’s name, work phone number, and congressional email address. Hampton then asked some 90,000 people who liked his page “to stop what you’re doing and call Arizona Rep. Kelly Townsend.” Within hours, after a barrage of calls and emails, Townsend clumsily walked back her comment blaming a chronic medical condition on the poor lifestyle choices of celebrity “tweakers.”
Hampton, a former heroin user who identifies as being in “long-term recovery,” is good at this kind of thing. In White’s rubric, he fits neatly into the loud-and-proud category. Hampton described his own rehab experience to me as a horror show: He wound up on never-ending waitlists and was rapidly detoxed off methadone, a dangerous move that goes against evidence. When I asked his mother to describe that time to me, she said, “I’m a teacher, a single parent. My resources are limited. … I helped him as much as I could squeeze an onion.” She searched until eventually finding a rehab center in Pasadena, California, that would take Hampton on a sliding scale.
Facing Addiction sees itself as providing a voice for the community, and that often means amplifying their voices on social media (they also have a blog for people to share their stories). In January, Jim Hood, who co-founded Facing Addiction in 2012 after his 20-year-old son died from an accidental overdose inside his dorm, posted a scathing indictment of Sephora for carrying a line of eyeshadow called “druggie.” Hood implored the company to “meet with leaders of the recovery movement and join us in facing addiction.” A social media pack led by Hampton digitally stormed the cosmetic brand, and Sephora apologized to Facing Addiction via tweet and stopped carrying the product.
But social media campaigns, while self-expressive and cathartic, are one thing. Having a group as diffuse as “people in recovery” fight for specific policies that meet their needs is something else entirely. Facing Addiction has become increasingly successful in its effort to build bridges in a fragmented field. It’s uniting the treatment community, for instance, over holding facilities accountable to track outcomes, which few currently do (Facing Addiction also partners with dozens of rehabs). Hampton and his work partner, Garrett Hade, met in rehab, and they’re now traveling around the country broadcasting local efforts to address addiction—everywhere from inside jails and prisons to suffering communities in Ohio. Instead of working in church basements, the organization takes the opposite approach, being intentionally loud and visible in its attempt at reducing the human cost sapped by a stigmatized illness, one that people still think of as a sin or crime.
Hampton’s own rise to prominence—his personal social media accounts now reach some 4 million people every month—is hardly apolitical. He began in earnest when he was elected as one of 551 delegates that California would send to the Democratic National Convention in 2016. To secure his spot, he herded some 70 people in his Pasadena recovery network—mostly twentysomethings fresh out of rehab—to the delegates breakfast, a political event open to all voters to select the state’s delegates. Few from Hampton’s crew had ever voted before; some hadn’t been registered until Hampton nudged them along. To get enough votes, the group fanned out among the liberal California crowd and shared how they were trying to beat addiction, or at the very least their attempts to beat addiction, and that Hampton’s goal was to make recovery part of the political dialogue during the election. He won by a landslide.
This should serve as ample evidence there is hunger for the recovery community to build, well, a community, and to raise their voices together. But the question remains: How should it be done? Though a Democrat, Hampton is nothing if not willing to play nice with others. He says he gets beat up on his social media all the time for criticizing Trump (he will message those people back and try to explain that his attacks aren’t personal). “No doubt the Democratic Party platform has been very strong for us, but we live in the age of Trump. We live in the age of a Republican Congress. We need Republican support,” he told me. In early August, he teamed up with none other than Jeb Bush and Dr. Oz to co-author an op-ed in HuffPost imploring the president to declare the epidemic a national emergency. Despite this week’s slow steps to start to take action, it feels worrisomely possible that, along with the dearth of other policy accomplishments of the Trump administration, the overdose crisis will simply continue to get the short end of the stick.
That is, unless, the people and the loved ones of those people, who the crisis hits the hardest, start to make some noise. Despite the heterogeneity of the millions in recovery, Harvard’s John Kelly is optimistic about Facing Addiction’s political organizing. “Even if you took 1 percent of that 11 million who identify as being in recovery, who are real go-getters, hardcore activists, you still have around 10,000 or 11,000 people,” he said. Referring to Hampton, he said, “Imagine if you have 11,000 folks like him, duplicates of him out there—that could instigate a lot of change.”
* * *
But the problem that faced HIV/AIDS activists is a similar one now facing the larger recovery community: For everyone who joins it, there are others who don’t survive to be their own advocates. In August, Hampton texted me that a friend of his, whose recovery efforts he was sponsoring, had died of an overdose in a Pasadena sober house. Naloxone, the drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, wasn’t available in the house. Not having naloxone available in a sober house is like running a hospital without a defibrillator. Worse still, some facilities choose not to keep naloxone around because they incorrectly think it “enables” or “encourages” using.
Hampton’s sadness boiled into anger. “His death was 100 percent preventable,” he said over the phone. “It costs $1,500 a month to live there. The owner and operators should have naloxone on hand and know how to use it.” (His response as an organizer was to invite Missouri harm reductionist Chad Sabora to California to distribute naloxone and train sober houses and treatment centers on how to use it.)
Overdoses leave loved ones behind—loved ones who are part of the group of people whose lives are intimately connected to the recovery movement and who may be persuaded to vote for political candidates who make real solutions a priority. Parents of overdose victims have started grief groups, such as Broken No More, and in the process have become powerful voices in addiction advocacy. The GOP’s thwarted attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act this year, if they had passed, would have likely stunted efforts to curb overdoses. “It could’ve rolled back years, if not decades, of progress on this issue,” Hampton said.
Given this, Hampton still believes Republicans can help solve the crisis: “Yes. Clearly, they’re in power,” he said. “The president campaigned on it. They have the capacity to do this.” But, he adds, “Whether or not they will actually take advantage and do the right thing is yet to be known.”
In the press, the overdose crisis is constantly referred to as one of the only issues left that has bipartisan support. But what if one party is actively working against evidence-based solutions? Take, for instance, Indiana social conservatives who recently shut down a syringe exchange program. What if activism actually needs to be partisan? Other countries have been where we are with rising overdoses; by using a combination of harm reduction tools, criminal justice reform, and modern medicine, they were able to solve their own drug crises. That progress is detailed in a recent report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy called “The Opioid Crisis in North America.”
But much stands in the way or even threatens similar progress from happening in America. Our obsession with incarceration is one: The Massachusetts Department of Public Health found the overdose death rate is 120 times higher for people released from prisons and jails in its state. A whopping 46 percent of federal prisoners, disproportionately nonwhite, are in on drug offenses. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated he favors policies that would renew the failed “war on drugs.”
We need mental health care and better rehab, but we also need more education and understanding. Columbia University’s Carl Hart, who teaches a course on drugs and behavior at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, refutes politicians’ convenient calls for more “beds.” Hart points out that most of the people dying are combining opiates with other sedatives, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines. “They are dying from ignorance, not the drugs,” Hart said. Another factor causing a spike in overdoses is überpotent, illicit fentanyl, which can be deadly even for more experienced users who have an opioid tolerance. Dan Ciccarone, the lead investigator of a study called Heroin in Transition that tracks America’s heroin supply, told me we’re no longer in an opioid crisis—he calls it a poisoning crisis.
But all these solutions as outlined—criminal justice reform, affordable health care, changing the way substance use is stigmatized in society—are not being pursued equally by the two major political parties. And the party endorsing them as solutions is not the party in charge. It may seem uncouth to take a movement that is gutting the entire country and acknowledge that only the Democrats have a platform set up to combat the crisis in a way we know will help. But perhaps giving up the myth of a bipartisan crisis is a lesson we can take from recovery itself: The first step to solving a problem is admitting there is one.
There’s little reason to have faith that the current government in power will implement policies that will keep people alive. And there’s even less reason to wait. As unimaginable as it seems, the overdose crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. I can only hope that those who feel powerless over their addictions may realize that by working together, we have more power than we know.
by Hayden Shelby @ Slate Articles
Wed Nov 01 08:37:14 PDT 2017
A few weeks ago, I made an appointment with a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy—CBT as it’s known to professionals and those of us who have way too much contact with the mental health care system. After months of struggling to find the right doctor and to get on a medication regime that could tamp down the worst of the physical pain that accompanies my condition, I had finally found the right medical mix and was feeling stable. But I still had some lingering negative thought patterns I wanted to kick, precisely the kind of thing CBT is supposed to be good for, which is why I scheduled the appointment. I went in expecting some helpful worksheets and mental exercises.
What I got was a therapist who, after doing a cursory intake evaluation, declared, “If you really want to get better, you’re going to have to get off those medications and put in the work.”
This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened to me. A couple of months prior, desperate and unable to eat or sleep, I had gone to a psychiatric hospital. I knew from experience that it was time to make a significant medication change, and I expressed this to the nurse practitioner handling my case. She came back with the recommendation of a three-week course of intensive outpatient CBT. I pleaded to talk to the attending psychiatrist, who thankfully agreed with my own assessment and got me on the track to recovery.
This whole course of events had been kicked off much earlier at an appointment with my then-psychiatrist—I had gone to him certain that the medicine I was on was “pooping out,” a well-documented but little understood phenomenon I typically experience every few years, in which a previously reliable medication just stops doing the trick. I’ve always solved this problem by rotating to another drug. But this time my doctor resisted. He had been reading up on CBT and was convinced that if I worked hard to change patterns in my thoughts, I could learn to control the problematic feedback loop between my brain and body. He insisted I try CBT before switching meds. I elected to find a new psychiatrist, a process that took weeks—long enough for me to spiral down into a hole I’m just now climbing out of.
As it happened, I had already done a variant of CBT a few years earlier, in the hopes of getting some tools to cope with the stresses of moving to a new city and starting grad school. I’d pursued this type of therapy instead of a medication adjustment because the anxiety I was feeling had a clear object (something CBT is designed to address), and the sensations attached to it were quite different from those I experience when my mental illness is taking hold. Years of dealing with this condition have made me able to discern the difference between normal and pathological psychic pain in the same way that, as an athlete, I’ve learned to differentiate between minor aches and pains and a serious injury. Both need to be tended to, as the former can make you more vulnerable to the latter, but the treatments are different. As it turned out, for me, CBT techniques proved to be lesser tools for managing stress than my tried-and-true regimen of dance classes and long runs.
I began to ponder my recent interactions with the mental health care system upon reading a recent New York Times Magazine story about severely anxious teens. The article contains most of the standard hand-wringing the Times has been putting out over how anxiety is America’s national mood and how we’ve become “the United States of Xanax.” But I was most struck by a subnarrative that speaks to my experiences with many care providers, as well as broader beliefs I fear are spreading as CBT is having its cultural moment.
The New York Times Magazine story highlights a young man, Jake, who suffers from paralyzing anxiety. When medication just “made a bad situation worse,” his parents sent him to an in-patient treatment center that practices CBT. There, he retrained his brain—“cognitive restructuring” in CBT lingo—and faced his fears through exposure therapy. The author and the clinicians he interviewed describe the therapy as “work” that is “uncomfortable.” At one point a woman in the piece describes an anxious teen doing an exposure exercise as “brave.” For Jake, in the end, this work pays off, and he goes off to college with a newfound control over his life and mind.
But Jake has a foil in this story. It’s a young woman, Jillian, who goes through the same treatment as Jake, but with different results. Her anxieties return, she leaves high school, battles with her mother, and falters in her use of the CBT tools she learned because “it’s exhausting.” When we last see Jillian, she is in her “messy” room, where she chats on her phone and ignores the schedule she is supposed to keep. Beside her sit the bottles of pills that she “believes” make her better than she would be otherwise. The subtle ways in which we are led to question Jillian, not CBT, struck me as unsettling.
In fact, highlighting one teen that benefits from CBT and one that doesn’t would be a fairly accurate representation of larger trends. According to a study cited in the story, CBT showed about the same rate of effectiveness in treating anxiety and depression as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibiting, or SSRI, medication—a little more than 50 percent—with better results when combined. In the thorny world of mental illnesses, these are good outcomes for both modes of treatment. The Times story isn’t celebrating the effectiveness of SSRIs, though. Why highlight CBT? Because unlike medication, it’s not just effective; it’s also virtuous.
You might say my story is the opposite of Jake’s. I’ve tried numerous forms of therapy, from traditional counseling to hypnosis, and yes, at this point, a couple attempts at CBT. I’ll probably keep trying new forms of therapy. But thus far, none have been able to replace—or, to be honest, even augment—medication. I’ve also always experienced an element of moralizing around therapy by health care professionals. As therapy has become more acceptable in the broader culture, it has also come to be expected of people who take medication to control disorders. As one general practitioner at my university chided while making me promise to see a counselor along with a psychiatrist, “you have to do your part.” But while a moralizing rhetoric runs through many types of therapy, CBT’s is a particularly virulent strain.
The first element of CBT’s moral claim lies in its identity as an evidence-based intervention, bolstered by the existence of a great deal of data to show its effectiveness. On its own, this is a positive development in psychotherapy. However, just because CBT might, on aggregate, be as effective as many drugs does not mean that it will be as effective as medication for any given individual. This subtle point is missed by some practitioners.
The main aspect of CBT’s moral superiority, however, lies in its purported strength: It places the patient in the driver’s seat of the therapeutic process; the therapist is conceived of as more of a coach. In fact, the latest movement in CBT even removes the therapist altogether. This “self-help” CBT assists patients through online guides and apps. And self-help accurately describes the way CBT is frequently packaged—with pure positivity and a can-do ethic. The “work” of getting better is up to the patient, who is responsible for her own success.
This characterization sets up a scary flip side. When medications don’t work, the fault is that of the pill. When traditional talk therapy doesn’t work, you can blame a “poor fit” or a lack of chemistry. But in CBT, failure redounds to the individual. The cumulative message I’ve gotten about CBT amounts to: It’s effective, so it should work, and if it doesn’t work, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.
But managing mental illness is always hard work, no matter how you do it. Navigating the health care system while in a state of distress is hard. Convincing providers to take seriously the urgency of a pain that has no observable physical manifestation is hard. And doing this while being told that you’re not putting in enough effort of your own is really hard. Like many people who take psychotropic drugs, I hate being on them. Relying on mind-altering substances to function produces no small amount of shame, not to mention existential anxiety. I’ve tried to go off them many times in the hopes that the “real me” will finally be able to stand on her own. Each time, I run into the heartbreaking reality that my unaltered self is too painful to bear.
The fact that CBT is helping people should be celebrated. But I need medication. And for me, the enthusiasm around CBT has prevented me from getting timely and appropriate treatment. It has also added a few bricks to the heavy burden I carry around about my inability to make myself better. That’s not fair to me, or to the other patients who are likely experiencing the same problems.
The core of CBT’s cognitive restructuring essentially amounts to rewriting the stories you tell yourself—if you can think about something differently, you can maybe shift the way it makes you feel. Perhaps it’s time to rewrite some of the stories we’re telling about CBT.
by Alex Barasch @ Slate Articles
Thu Jan 11 14:45:53 PST 2018
A Minnesota-based gym chain called Life Time caused a stir among its clients—and the rest of the internet, once the New York Times picked up the story—when it announced its decision to remove all cable news programming, left- and right-leaning alike, from the big-screen TVs in its 130 locations around the country. Amid cries of censorship, Life Time’s statement on Twitter emphasized that it was a decision borne of “significant member feedback received over time” and that the move was in line with the gym’s “healthy way of life philosophy.”
The subtext is that watching cable news could harm your health—a maxim that might sound downright intuitive in this day and age. But among scientists, the jury is still out. It’s true that certain types of news seem to have a measurable impact on our mental health: Researchers from the University of Toronto found that journalists who regularly deal with images of extreme violence in the course of their work are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD, and alcoholism. The authors conclude that “frequent, repetitive viewing of traumatic images can come with adverse psychological consequences.” Interestingly (and worryingly), the opposite can also be true: Increased exposure to these images can lead to desensitization, a kind of emotional numbing effect as they become used to the horrors that come with the job. While non-journalists won’t bear the brunt of this, it follows that stories of police brutality, terrorist attacks, and other violence could start to wear on our emotional well-being (or at the other end of the spectrum, our ability to respond emotionally in the first place), particularly if we’re always plugged in.
Importantly, though, cable news in and of itself has no such effect. Although individual elections might affect our stress levels—Duke scientists tracking the stress hormone cortisol in McCain voters vs. Obama voters on the night of the 2008 election saw a spike among members of the losing party—the steady drumbeat of political developments doesn’t seem to do the same. One 2017 study of older adults, the largest consumers of cable news, exposed volunteers to Fox News, MSNBC, and PBS (respectively deemed right, left, and center), then monitored their psychological, physiological, and cognitive responses. In short, there wasn’t one: “Cable news watching had no effect on psychological stress, physiological stress, or cognitive function.
This remained true even if the news exposures were discordant with participants’ political affiliation.” While a 2012 study at Texas A&M found that New York Times stories about Obama’s success led to higher cortisol levels than those about Mystic Pizza or Taylor Swift among the college’s conservative student body, the authors were quick to note that “the effects we observed were within the range of normal, daily variations in cortisol,” and they pushed back against the notion of political coverage as a kind of “secondary smoke” for partisan opponents. So from an empirical perspective, it seems that both watching and reading the news, even when it scares us or disappoints us or we disagree with it, are relatively safe habits.
Natalie Bushaw, a spokeswoman for Life Time, assured the Times that when it comes to cable news at the gym, this went beyond Trump. “This has been a growing issue over years, not weeks or months,” she said. That may have been more about the gym’s desire to combat accusations of censorship in these polarized times. But she’s right that people have worried about information overload being bad for one’s health for a long time: As early as the 1840s, Victorians feared for the fate of “brain workers”—the academics, financiers, and clergymen inundated with information at rates that had previously been impossible. As the advent of commercial telegraphs and the mass production and distribution of pamphlets and periodicals radically altered the speed and frequency of communication, doctors advised those facing mental and emotional overload to “take rest,” literally checking out and retiring to, say, Davos for months or even years at a time.
A six-month vacation from reality may sound tempting, perhaps even healthy considering the current state of the world. Which brings us to the crux of the issue: Things have obviously changed fundamentally since the 1840s, but they’ve also changed since 2016. It’s worth noting that while the most recent of these studies was published in 2017, volunteers were recruited between July 2014 and May 2015—in other words, well before the Trump administration or the #MeToo moment. Our current 24-hour news cycle, dominated by stories of sexual assault, environmental crises, and impending nuclear disaster, may well be more distressing than it has been in the past, and plenty has been written about what we can do to cultivate a healthier “media diet” in response. There are cases in which limiting our exposure is in fact a valid and worthwhile course of action: It’s OK (and probably even advisable) to go to bed on an election night instead of obsessively refreshing the Upshot’s robot predictor needle. And there’s no shame in choosing not to bear witness to every moment of violence, as long as we don’t shy away from what they tell us about the world we live in.
Life Time has offered its customers a compromise: The channels that have been removed from large-screen TVs are still available on smaller ones, and the gym’s Wi-Fi allows them to tune in to whatever they like on mobile phones. While it may not be scientifically necessary to take cable TV off its biggest screens, the gym is simply letting its customers make a choice about where, whether, and how much they want to engage—and that seems like a perfectly reasonable step to me.
by Christina Bonnington @ Slate Articles
Thu Dec 07 18:10:00 PST 2017
Since President Trump announced plans Monday to slash the size of two Utah national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, outdoor apparel company Patagonia hasn’t been quiet about its feelings.
Under the President’s decision, in 60 days, more than two million acres of previously protected land will be open to mining and other operations. While a number of outdoor retailers expressed disappointment at the president’s order, Patagonia turned things up to 11. The company made its website and social media channels black, emblazoned with the brief, powerful headline: “The President Stole Your Land.” And on Wednesday, the company joined a number of lawsuits to fight Trump’s order.
This isn’t the first time the ethically-minded company has butted heads with government officials. Earlier this year, Patagonia, along with other outdoor brands Arc’teryx, Polartec, REI, and the North Face, banded together against Utah’s Republican governor Gary Herbert. Herbert and the state’s congressional leaders already had made it a priority to roll back the national monument protections President Obama had allotted to Bears Ears. Galvanized by Patagonia’s 78-year old founder Yvon Chouinard, the retailers pulled their participation from the traditionally Utah-based Outdoor Retailer show, an event that garners $45 million in revenue for the state annually. Starting next month, the trade show will be held in Boulder, Colorado, instead. Patagonia spokeswoman Corley Kenna said that the company has been “fighting for these lands for decades, so that hunters, fishers, hikers and everyone else can use them and help us protect them.”
And the California-based retailer has been clear about its reasoning for why it thinks Trump’s move is illegal: It both oversteps the president’s level of authority and removes important protections from lands local Native Americans tribes consider sacred. “Protecting public lands is a core tenet of our mission and vitally important to our industry, and we feel we need to do everything in our power to protect this special place,” Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario wrote in an explanation in Time.
A large number of social media followers applauded Patagonia’s stand against Trump.
Patagonia is doing what many Americans have been doing all year and wish the Democratic party had the guts to do: Fight back against the Trump administration. U.S. citizens have been calling, writing, and emailing to their representatives in Washington to share their opposition to a variety of issues, including plans to replace the Affordable Care Act and eliminate Net Neutrality. And they’ve had varying degrees of success. Patagonia, unlike those constantly contacting our representatives, might have a voice that our government will listen to: a voice with corporate money behind it.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke dismissed Patagonia’s behavior as just a marketing ploy. “Not one square inch was stolen. The federal estate remains intact,” Zinke said in a call with reporters when questioned about Patagonia’s accusation. “I think it’s shameful and appalling that they would blatantly lie in order to gain money in their coffers.”
If it is a marketing ploy, it’s a good one. Patagonia’s Dec. 4 tweet announcing its intentions has more than 62,000 retweets and 82,000 likes, including numerous people pronouncing their loyalty to the brand. But the company is getting its fair share of criticism as well. Some voice that there’s already too much federal control in the state. “The federal government owns nearly 65 percent of Utah,” one Instagram commenter in support of Trump’s move writes, “when is enough, enough?” Others complain that the retailer should just stay out of politics.
Patagonia has a vested interest in keeping public lands like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante public: It’s some of the outdoor playgrounds where many of its customers like to play. With fewer places to hike, camp, or fish, there could be less need for clothing that addresses those activities. Patagonia’s CEO is open about what the company stands to gain from its intervention with these monuments. But the bottom line is that these lands don’t have a voice, and the people who want to see these beautiful landscapes preserved for future generations don’t have one either. Patagonia does. While its legal efforts in protecting these monuments will take years to unfold—and may not end in the company’s favor—it’s the only option there is. Patagonia is one of the few entities with the pocketbook to see this thing through.
November 13, 2013 edition of the Campbell River Mirror
It’s Illegal for Hospitals to Not Provide Translation Services. So Why Is Proper Translation Still Scarce?
by Terena Bell @ Slate Articles
Wed Dec 27 07:00:00 PST 2017
Do you speak a second language fluently? Sort of fluently? Or maybe you partially remember high school Spanish? Well, show up with the right friend at the wrong hospital and you too can be a medical interpreter: Let them know you can say a few words, and the job can be yours.
It sounds insane—that a hospital would give you a job you’re not remotely qualified for, especially one that could have serious repercussions for someone’s health. But the state of medical translation means that it is too frequently the case. As far back as 1996, research from Emory University School of Medicine showed that 76 percent of Spanish-speaking patients went without an interpreter in the emergency department. Data on the subject is scarce, but anecdotal evidence indicates little has changed. One doctor at Mt. Sinai in New York, a hospital that often sees patients who don’t speak English, told me her colleagues frequently ask her to interpret Arabic, a language she doesn’t even speak, because she has a Middle Eastern last name (she requested anonymity for professional reasons). This is all part of an ad-hoc system that often means if translation is provided at all, it’s likely from a bystander, family member, or friend with no idea how to say things like “mitral valve prolapse” in a foreign language.
Why? You might wonder if it’s because ER doctors have to save lives quickly, and finding an interpreter could cause delays. That sounds reasonable, but hospitals have plenty of protocols that help them achieve complicated outcomes quickly—language access ought to be one of them. Nor is it because medical interpreters don’t exist or can’t be found. Instead, underuse of medical interpreters seems to stem from misunderstanding how proper translation improves medical outcomes, and that it’s not only fiscally possible, it’s actually fiscally prudent, since it’s illegal not to offer.
Medical interpreters are supposed to be certified. Credentials from both the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters are accepted. For additional qualifications, you can pursue a master’s in interpreting or a graduate certificate from universities across the country. Like doctors, interpreters are also required to pursue continued education every year. It’s in the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) Code of Ethics: “The interpreter strives to continually further his/her knowledge and skills.”
Hospitals would never dream of letting a patient’s friend operate just because she can hold a scalpel. But they ask bilingual relatives to interpret all the time, disregarding how critical communication is to patient care. Get one word wrong and the consequences can be life-changing: After staff misunderstood intoxicado (Spanish for “poisoned”) as “drunk,” Florida teen Willie Ramirez received the wrong care and ended up paralyzed. In Oregon, Elidiana Valdez-Lemus died after 911 misinterpreted her address. Lack of proper translation has consequences outside of emergencies, too: Erika Williams, a second-year medical student at Harvard Medical School, summarized research to show that when there’s a language barrier, patients “receive less preventative care,” don’t take medication as prescribed, “and are more likely to leave the hospital against medical advice.”
Federal civil rights laws state that hospitals must provide people—all people—with equal access to care, regardless of “race, color, or national origin.” That’s the phrase used in Title VI, the first law pertaining to professional interpreters. If “national origin” doesn’t indicate language as a discriminator clearly enough, in Executive Order 13166, President Bill Clinton implicitly stated any organization receiving federal funds—like Medicaid or Medicare—must provide “meaningful language access.” If they don’t, facilities are supposed to lose those funds.
But this doesn’t always happen. Chris Carter, president of the Association of Language Companies, the U.S. trade organization for translation and interpreting providers, says hospitals rarely become proactively compliant: “Unfortunately, member companies of the ALC have noticed in recent years that healthcare organizations usually wait until they are audited by the [Department of Justice] and found non-compliant with [Affordable Care Act] Section 1557 or other laws before they shift from ad hoc service provision to implementing an organized Language Access Plan.”
Is providing interpretation prohibitively expensive? Not in the context of what medical care costs—and how expensive mistakes are. From 2005–2015, I owned an interpreting company. When we opened, an on-site Spanish interpreter cost $25 an hour. If you wanted someone by phone, it was $1.50 a minute. Interpreting services are also reimbursed by certain types of insurance. But the No. 1 sales objection we heard from hospital administrators was that professional interpreting was too expensive.
Under the ACA, failure to provide a medical interpreter can be met with a $70,000 fine—for each encounter with a patient. Which means that the cost of not providing an interpreter, even if it doesn’t lead to errors, is astronomically higher than the cost of paying for one.
At least for now. As states file ACA waivers, they aren’t just opting out of Obamacare’s better-known parts. They’re also giving hospitals permission to shortchange limited-English speakers’ care. It’s true that Title VI is there to fall back on, but it’s rarely and arbitrarily enforced. It’s the ACA’s hefty fines that have been the impetus forcing hospitals to change: Carter says that since ACA audits began, interpreting companies have seen many hospitals working with professional interpreters for the first time, an improvement he’s noticed industrywide.
“The risks are too high to give up and to say quality interpretation for everyone in America just can’t be done,” Carter says.
The right to understand what doctors are doing to your body is fundamental. The right to know your own diagnosis is basic, to know when surgery is being performed on what, to understand why people are putting needles and tubes inside you. Interpreting isn’t too expensive—it’s essential to providing accurate medical care. Hospitals’ failure to appreciate and act on this is not a failure that we should dismiss for mere budgeting. It’s a manifestation of racism that should no longer have a place in our society.
by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles
Wed Nov 22 02:57:00 PST 2017
A few years back, the comedian Chelsea Handler used to tell this joke on stage: “There are two types of people I don’t trust,” she’d say. “People who don’t drink while on medication and people who clap when the plane lands.”
It’s funny because it’s true: Why should pilots be congratulated for managing to do their jobs without killing hundreds of people? (As Handler once pointed out on Twitter, #thatswhattheyresupposedtofuckingdo.) It’s not just a comedian’s pet peeve; frustration with the idiotic cabin clap appears to be widespread. “Please Don’t Clap When the Plane Lands,” wrote the staff of Condé Nast Traveler in a signed editorial last year. “If the pilot navigates a bumpy landing with skill and style, I’ll clap,” one editor declared. “But I don’t give participation trophies.” Even cockpit personnel seem to find the practice irksome: “Applauding implies that a smooth landing is an exceptional accomplishment, rather than the routine work of a qualified pilot,” one explained on Yahoo Answers in 2011, in response to the post, “Clapping on airplane when landing?” This person continued: “I personally consider applause to be an insult, since it implies that I can’t land smoothly unless I get lucky.”
So who are these airborne clappers, and what makes them clap like airborne seals? When did the practice start, what’s it for, and will it ever go away? I spent some time cruising online forums in search of answers to these questions.
But the more I learned about the history of airplane applause and the history of sneering at the same, the more I came to doubt the premise of my hunt. The phenomenon itself may be exaggerated in the minds of those who mock it. Indeed, I now suspect there are very few cabin clappers in the wild and that a pilot’s unearned bravos and bravas are not so much a scourge that ought to be curtailed as a curmudgeon’s fantasy of something that would in fact be quite annoying if it really happened on the regular. I mean to say that my pet peeve, and Handler’s, is more or less ginned up.
It’s not that no one ever celebrates the final moment of flight. (You can find plenty of examples of the cabin clap on YouTube.) But these are freak events. An airplane’s landing cheer exists, but it rarely gets deployed. When it does it’s often for a special reason—a touchdown in a heavy storm, perhaps, or under some other form of flight duress. This is not the cabin clap we mean when we call the clapper silly or suspicious, though. No, we’re referring to a different, maybe apocryphal variety: the applause that has no rationale—a knee-jerk cheer for a plane’s routine arrival.
This latter version of the landing clap, dopey and unearned, has long been made the object of ridicule, if not nativist derision. Indeed, an early piece about the practice by a travel writer, published by the New York Times in 1997, claims we caught the clap from foreigners: Cheering for a touchdown is a “common yet enigmatic phenomenon of modern air travel,” the author writes, though one that’s seldom heard on domestic routes. Clappers aren’t from America, he says; they’re passengers from overseas, “returning to their native soil,” and the loudest perpetrators are those who happen to possess a high degree of “cultural passion.” The Spaniards, for example, are vibrant landing-clappers; so are the Brazilians and airplane passengers from Italy. Then again, the piece also adds that “even the famously unemotional Japanese engage in the Landing Clap;” along with all the patriotic Russians and Germans who have journeyed back to their motherlands.
This ethno-national finger-pointing forms a common thread through discussions of the landing clap. Spend enough time in these debates, and you’ll be informed (once again) that clapping is a German thing, or a pastime of the Russians; or else that it’s particular to Greece or Italy; ubiquitous on Asian flights; or particular to Israeli passengers; or Jamaicans, Dominicans, Filipinos or Canadians. You’ll learn that people used to clap a lot on domestic flights in Czechoslovakia. You’ll read, from time to time, that landing cheers are “mostly a U.S. thing.”
These stereotypes can’t all be true, of course. The round-robin claims should make us more suspicious: If Germans really clap for landing, and so do Russians, Asians, Israelis, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Filipinos, Canadians, and Americans, well then applause would be more or less ubiquitous on commercial flights, which it’s clearly not. Yet everyone who believes in landing claps—and finds them quaint, silly, or suspicious—seems inclined to pin the custom on the passengers of another, less sophisticated culture. We don’t cheer at airplane landings. They do.
In a slight variation on this theme, some will claim that landing-clappers aren’t from another country; they’re from another time. We used to cheer on landing, this theory goes, back when people weren’t quite so used to flying, and when flying wasn’t quite so safe. Now, in recent years, this custom has subsided. We’ve gotten savvier and less easily impressed. “In my experience, clapping on landing was way more common a few years ago,” wrote one user in a long debate on Airliners.net. “In the past 25 years, I find that it happens less and less,” another said.
I’m dubious of this idea, that people used to clap and now they’ve stopped. I mean, no one even cheered the dawn of human flight. When Wilbur and Orville Wright gave their first public demonstrations at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the assembled reporters were impassive, according to David McCullough’s biography of the brothers. “This spectacle was so startling, so bewildering to the senses in that year 1908, that we all stood like so many marble men,” one observer wrote. “Here on this lonely beach was being performed the greatest act of the ages,” another said, “but there were no spectators and no applause save the booming of the surf and the startled cries of the sea birds.”
Certainly in the age of modern aviation, those accounts of landing cheers that do exist tend to link them to some specific cause or calamity. In 1991, for example, an Alaska Airlines passenger demanded to be let off the plane before it took off because he’d learned a woman would be at the flight’s controls. Newspapers made a point of saying the remaining passengers applauded for the pilot when she later landed smoothly in Seattle. Landing claps were also noted in January of 2000, on flights that landed safely in the wee hours of New Year’s Day: Passengers were glad for having survived the Y2K computer bug. The following autumn, for a brief spell in the aftermath of 9/11, news reports observed that passengers were cheering “boring flights” with safe arrivals.
Among the other, reported blips of cabin clapping are claims, made every now and then, that certain airlines have been making use of “clap tracks.” The editorial in Condé Nast Traveler asserts that Ryanair, the low-cost Irish carrier, pipes smatterings of fake applause over the PA so as to goose an ersatz cabin cheer. The airline has been singled out for this chicanery by others, too, though its head of communications denies the charges, telling me there is frequent clapping aboard Ryanair, but that it’s both natural and heartfelt. (The airline’s pre-recorded victory trumpet may do some work to spur applause.)
The most common form of landing cheer has always been the one that celebrates avoidance of catastrophe. It’s for captains who have earned their plaudits facing up, Sully-esque, to some dire airplane hazard. Consider Southwest Airlines Flight 812, in April 2011: A hole tore though the cabin roof, flight attendants passed out from lack of oxygen, and the cockpit crew lost access to its main controls. People clapped when that plane touched down and then began to hug one another. “It was unreal,” one told the Associated Press. “Everybody was [acting] like they were high school chums.” Or what about the American Airlines flight from 2009 that touched down one Sunday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a very heavy fog, before veering off the runway and scraping a wing against the ground. Miraculously, no passengers were injured. When the tumult stopped, people cheered in gratitude and relief.
These are standard cabin claps, to the extent that clapping is a standard practice at all. (Even in these situations, the pilots may not hear the sound above the cockpit noise.)
But they themselves bring to mind another question. Unless you’ve flown a plane yourself, and understand the tribulations of a tricky landing, then how are you supposed to know when a bumpy touchdown means your pilot has excelled, or when it means the opposite? Who are you to judge her skill, let alone applaud it?
Take that Charlotte flight, for example. A subsequent investigation found the cockpit crew had known the plane was off its course yet refused to take a second pass. According to the Wall Street Journal, the pilots chose instead—mistakenly—to take their autopilot offline. “Crew fatigue might have been an issue,” the paper noted. If that’s the case, the passengers may have clapped in celebration of their crew’s incompetence.
Similarly, during a summer thunderstorm in Toronto in 2005, an Air France flight with several hundred passengers tried to land amid the rain and lightning. “Just before touching ground, it was all black in the plane, there was no more light, nothing,” one passenger later told a reporter. A second later, the airplane landed with a bump, and the frightened cabin erupted in applause at what appeared to be an expert landing. “But after that,” the same man continued, “we [felt] bump, bump, bump, bump, bump.”
It did not take long for the passengers to realize that their clap was premature. The plane came down too fast, barreled off the runway and rolled into a ravine, where it burst into flames. It looked like the left engine had exploded. Smoke filled the cabin. “The light became very, very yellow by the fire’s flame,” the passenger continued, “and we said that were all going to die at that moment, and the airplane continued to roll.” No one died, but some among the passengers who had moments earlier been clapping for the pilot came away with serious injuries. A few years later a class-action suit against the airline would be settled for $10 million, after investigators found that the pilots had missed important signals and failed to “make the standard callouts” for the situation.
Maybe that’s the hidden problem with the landing clap: Even when we think applause is well-deserved, we may be off the mark.
by Nathalie Baptiste @ Slate Articles
Mon Oct 30 08:42:41 PDT 2017
Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy—a monstrous post-tropical cyclone with hurricane-force winds—struck New York, bringing record-breaking wind gusts and deadly flooding. In New York City, 53 people died—nearly half of them were from Staten Island. The Ocean Breeze, Midland Beach, and Dongan Hills communities were especially hard hit, with 11 fatalities. A few months after the storm, WNYC reporter Matthew Schuerman described the square mile that makes up parts of these communities as “the most dangerous place to be in New York City” during Sandy.
Joe Herrnkind, a middle-aged man who moved to Ocean Breeze in 2000, remembers those days, as he walks through the deserted streets of his once tightknit beach community. Most of the homes have been torn down, and a few are boarded up waiting to be demolished. The homes that do remain are surrounded by empty plots of land where wild turkeys wander. Unlike many other New York victims of Sandy, who have rebuilt their communities, those from these neighborhoods knew that rebuilding was not the best option. Some sold their land to developers, and a few others, like Herrnkind and his neighbors, sold their land to the governor’s office so it can be returned to its natural state.
“We’re a low-lying community,” he says. “We had constant flooding and wildfires. You hear all this and you’re saying, ‘Why would you want to live there?’ ”
Recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have all raised the same question: What is to be done with the dozens of towns and cities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico that have developed infrastructure on vulnerable flood-prone land that routinely requires massive cleanup and rebuilding efforts after each disastrous storm? Altogether, the recent storms could cost up to nearly $400 billion in damages. But some communities and local leaders are starting to realize that this model won’t break the cycle. In Ocean Breeze, instead of rebuilding on vulnerable flood plains, some residents have chosen to leave old neighborhoods behind and let nature take its course.
In 2012, when Sandy approached New York, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered evacuations of nearly 375,000 people in low-lying communities ahead of the storm. Herrnkind gathered his two dogs and left to stay with a friend in New Jersey. Most of his neighbors followed the evacuation orders, but eight or nine families stayed behind. Two of his neighbors died.
Sandy’s peak winds were recorded at 115 miles per hour, and Staten Island saw wind gusts of up to 80 miles per hour. Father Cappodano Boulevard, the main road separating Ocean Breeze from the Atlantic, rose several feet above the side streets. Sandy’s unprecedented 16-foot surge overtopped the roads and poured into homes. A few days later, when Herrnkind was able to return, he had no idea whether his home was going to be standing. The city estimated that more than 300,000 homes were damaged by the storm’s flood.
“An officer told me ‘You can’t go down there,’ ” Herrnkind recalls. When he finally arrived, the water was still nearly waist deep. “It’s still there,” he remembers thinking when he first saw his house. “I have something to work with.” The watermark on a lamppost today shows that the storm surge reached far above his head, which explains why his furniture and all his personal belongings were gone.
Local leaders struggled to respond to the crisis. New York City created Build It Back, a program for rebuilding destroyed and damaged homes. There are more than 8,000 participants and by 2017, the mayor’s office estimates 87 percent of those who enrolled have received compensation, completed construction, or had their homes acquired by the city. But the program has come under criticism. Many homeowners dropped out due to delays. City Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Councilman Mark Treyger, who represents parts of Brooklyn, have been fierce critics of the program. In a letter to Build It Back director Amy Peterson, the two wrote that the number of dropouts “raises serious questions about our City’s ability to mount an efficient and effective recovery operation in the event of a future disaster.” Herrnkind jokingly refers to it as “Build It Wrong.”
After six months of living in his car, which he had parked in front of his abandoned house, and being disappointed by the city’s program, Herrnkind realized “the land itself should never have been built on.” Much of the region was a salt marsh, particularly vulnerable to storm surge and floods. “It was a very low, natural, spongy salt marsh, and it was filled to create homes,” Robert Brauman, a project manager for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection told Curbed New York in 2016, “and that was where the problems started.”
Another option for some homeowners was a program from the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, which has been buying houses that were destroyed or substantially damaged and transforming them to open space and wetlands. The goal is to create a natural coastal buffer that can protect communities from future storms. In late 2013, more than a year after the storm, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that Ocean Breeze would join Oakwood Beach as a town eligible for state buyouts, and Herrnkind’s entire block was included. Reluctant to “put someone else in harm’s way,” Herrnkind concluded that he and his neighbors should take advantage of the state buyout program. He was able to sell his home to the state at pre-storm value and move elsewhere on the island.
So far, more than 600 homes have been purchased through the buyout program. Once the sale goes through, the state government demolishes the home and lets nature reclaim the land. Today, Ocean Breeze is mostly empty, but complicating matters are the residents who refuse to leave. In Oakwood Beach, where most of the land is going back to nature, remaining residents struggle with lack of trash pickup and crumbling roads. One of Herrnkind’s former neighbors who stayed behind is an elderly woman who feared her children would put her in a nursing home if she left. Some opted out of the program because they didn’t have the proper paperwork required to sell their homes. Others didn’t want to give up their homes in a community they loved.
But staying behind comes with a cost. According to the New York Times, flood insurance premiums could rise up to 25 percent for homes that were damaged by Sandy.
On Herrnkind’s section of the street, only one home remains out of eight. “Around here, 90 percent of each block went,” he says, “and only one or two people stayed.” Just down the street from where Herrnkind used to live, more turkeys mill about on empty lots where homes used to be.
Herrnkind’s former neighbor Frank Moszczynski, a tall man with a large presence, took the state buyout and moved to another neighborhood on Staten Island. He doesn’t have much sympathy for someone who willingly stays in a vulnerable area. “Why should … emergency workers have to go out and risk their lives for someone who chose to stay in harm’s way?” he asks pointedly. Today, the only thing protecting Ocean Breeze from another storm is a 4-foot hill of sand.
Across the street from the vacant lot he used to call home, Herrnkind stands on the beach looking at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and Brooklyn’s Coney Island, a view he used to be able to see from his bedroom window. “If it weren’t for Sandy,” he says, “I’d still be here.”
by Gavan Cooke @ Slate Articles
Fri Nov 03 08:02:00 PDT 2017
This article originally appeared on The Conversation and has been republished here with permission.
A beach in Wales recently faced an eight-armed invasion. Over 20 octopuses were reportedly seen crawling up New Quay beach on the west coast of the country, with many later being found dead after failing to make it back to the sea.
Strandings of octopuses and other cephalopods (squishy, intelligent creatures including squid and cuttlefish) are pretty rare, and the exact truth of why this happened may never be known. But there are several theories that might help us to better understand this unusual event.
1. They became stranded like whales do.
Whale strandings are often put down to failures in the animals’ natural navigating abilities, which involve sending out sonar signals and sensing the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. Sometimes the shoreline is too complex for these abilities to work, or there may be interference from human activities or even magnetic space weather.
But similar explanations aren’t likely to apply to the octopuses as they don’t navigate this way (instead we think they use a mental map like humans). Their hearing and auditory organs are comparatively simple and they can only hear at very narrow frequencies, which are not thought to be used for navigation.
2. A storm blew them ashore.
This is quite an appealing idea. Octopuses are (relatively) small and it’s easy to imagine them being caught in the forceful waves and washing up in large numbers. The coast of Britain has certainly been battered by storms recently.
There was also a high tide at around the time the octopuses are thought to have started appearing—so could a storm surge have dropped them on the beach? A sandy beach is not where you would expect these rocky seabed animals to be, so something unusual must have taken them to it.
3. They were looking for food.
While there have been anecdotal reports of octopuses leaping from rock pool to rock pool at low tide to grab a snack, this hasn’t included the curled octopus (Eledone cirrhosa) found on New Quay beach. Although they do eat crabs, this species is normally found at much greater depths. We can’t rule this theory out but we also know that, instead of undergoing a frenzied feasting period, this species eats less in these waters at this time of year.
4. The octopuses were senile.
As silly as this sounds, it is a plausible option. Like nearly all cephalopods, these octopuses are strictly semelparous, meaning they breed once and then die. October is the last hurrah for this species, and adults go through a period known as “senescence” after breeding.
This final stage of their lives causes the animals to rapidly deteriorate and behave very oddly. Many of the videos showing giant squid behaving weirdly in the shallows can probably be explained by this old-age senility.
This was my first thought, but a major reservation about this hypothesis is that these older octopuses normally show signs of physical deterioration. For example, their skin goes white and peels, cataracts can be common, and the animals generally appear to be in poor condition and get skin diseases. So far, I have not seen any evidence of this poor body condition normally associated with senescence.
5. Octopus numbers may be increasing.
One apparently encouraging implication to this sad tale is that it might indicate an increase in the numbers of octopuses in the sea. All year, I have been seeing reports of greater and greater numbers of all cephalopods in U.K. waters, especially octopuses. At the end of the summer, my social media feed was comparatively buzzing with videos of excited bathers spotting octopuses in rock pools, something not seen much before in U.K. waters. I’ve also seen many videos of huge groups of cuttlefish, a cephalopod species usually found in much smaller groups.
There are several possible explanations for this. Overfishing might be reducing numbers of cephalopod predators. The increase in sea temperatures related to climate change could be helping southerly species, such as Octopus vulgaris, “invade” our waters.
Another intriguing aspect of this event is that so many were found in the same place. Octopuses generally are thought to be solitary creatures, including Elodone cirrhosa. But a recent finding suggests we may have to reevaluate much of what we know regarding the sociability of these animals. Perhaps these octopuses had gathered for mating and got caught up in a powerful set of waves.
In the longer term, and at a more global scale, human interference may benefit some species rather than others. We joke that rats and cockroaches will inherit the Earth, but cephalopods may also be a benefactor. We overfish their predators and they possibly do not suffer from ocean acidification like other invertebrates. If this is indeed a happy note in a time of generally bad news for marine life, I for one welcome our new cephalopod overlords.
by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles
Tue Dec 12 14:38:00 PST 2017
The notion of a “man flu” has long circulated on the internet, a silly concept with some serious staying power. While it’s been entered into more reputable lexical receptacles since, Urban Dictionary defined it first and best: “The condition shared by all males wherein a common illness (usually a mild cold) is presented by the patient as life-threatening. This is also known as ‘Fishing for Sympathy’ or ‘Chronic Exaggeration’. When the patient is your boyfriend, he will exhibit the standard symptoms (such as an overwhelming desire for compassion) while simultaneously rejecting any and all efforts you make to placate him.”
Part joke, part lived experience, the man flu has now reportedly been validated by science, sort of. On Monday, the British Medical Journal published its special Christmas edition. An annual installment of slightly-more-fun-than-usual scientific research, 2017’s issue included a literature review arguing for the empirical validity of the concept of man flu. Written by Canadian researcher and family medicine doctor Kyle Sue, the tongue-in-cheek journal article “explores whether men are wimps or just immunologically inferior.” According to Sue, who writes that the article came about because he was “tired of being accused of over-reacting,” mocking man flu isn’t just mean, but “potentially unjust”:
Men may not be exaggerating symptoms but have weaker immune responses to viral respiratory viruses, leading to greater morbidity and mortality than seen in women. [...] Lying on the couch, not getting out of bed, or receiving assistance with activities of daily living could also be evolutionarily behaviours that protect against predators.
In his article, Sue looks at a handful of previous studies to support his man flu thesis. He notes that men appear, at least according to some research, to be less responsive to the flu vaccine, which could increase the chance they get the flu in the first place. Later, he documents how males are more likely to experience complications or even die from acute respiratory problems such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
While the studies Sue cites are certainly reputable, that doesn’t actually mean the man flu as it’s commonly understood is real. And it’s certainly not a validation to men who misbehave when they’re ill. Sabra Klein of Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and several other experts have criticized the conclusions of Sue’s research. Klein told CNN that there could be a “man flu,” but only if you look at certain subpopulations: Before puberty and in old age (65 years and over), it really does seem more likely that men get hospitalized for the flu. But in middle age, there’s a slight uptick in the number of women—in particular, pregnant women in the midst of a nine-month immunosuppression stint—that go to the emergency room for influenza side effects. In other words, there may be some semblance of boy flu and an old man flu, but all things being equal, influenza isn’t a particularly sexist infection.
The evidence Sue gathered seems to substantiate the idea that men are biologically weaker in several key (and potentially fatal) ways. This is something experts have long understood to be true, as men the world over are more likely to die than women at every point along the lifespan, from the womb to old age. But it’s a reality that’s remained difficult to explain scientifically. For many years, scientists have been exploring whether sex hormones are to blame. In an article for Slate about the prevalence of women with autoimmune disorders (a sign of an overactive immune system) Jeremy Singer-Vine wrote that, “Testosterone tends to suppress the body's response to infection, while estrogens typically boost it. Since women have a more vigorous response, goes the argument, their immune systems might be more likely to become hyperactive.”* According to that line of thinking, men would then have a lethargic immune system that would keep them from developing autoimmune diseases en masse, but also from fighting off infection. But, Singer-Vine continues, “Data to support these claims, however, have been inconclusive.”
Another theory for the sex disparity, Singer-Vine writes, is that women’s double X chromosome give them a genetic boost, while men’s already miniature Y chromosome is literally shrinking even further. It’s also possible that the sex disparity in people’s influenza response is partially a social phenomenon. It’s been widely documented that men are less likely to see a doctor than women, which might mean they’re less likely to get the flu vaccine in the first place, or to go to the doctor on the rare chance their flu symptoms escalate. While there are numerous factors that influence a visit to the doctor’s office (insurance, income, and access being chief are among them), there’s reason to believe masculinity could be partially to blame. Research indicates that men routinely cite embarrassment, a desire to maintain their privacy, anxiety, and flawed communication as reasons for not seeing a doctor. Unlike the physical theories, this social hypothesis could support Sue’s claims—but not in the way he’d probably hope.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Sue cites a finding that women were more likely to take time off when they experienced just one flu symptom. “This contradicts the common myth that men cut down activities more than women by exaggerating the severity of symptoms,” he writes. What Sue fails to note is that taking time off when the first symptoms of a cold strike—and not working through until you’re so physically exhausted you’re forced into the fetal position and need others to do your bidding—is clearly the healthier choice.
*Correction, Dec. 12, 2017: This article originally misidentified the author of an article about autoimmune disorders. It was Jeremy Singer-Vine, not Jeremy Samuel Faust. (Return.)
by Ketan Jha @ Slate Articles
Wed Nov 15 04:30:00 PST 2017
Things are not going well for the Earth. It goes well beyond the Trump administration’s decision to eventually leave the Paris Agreement and Scott Pruitt’s purge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific experts. Even non-American efforts to curb climate change aren’t going so well: Newly released data from the World Meteorological Organization reveal a record increase in average global concentrations of CO2 between 2015 and 2016. The United Nations Environment Programme recently issued its annual synthesis report on the emissions gap, which is the difference between country-specific plans and reductions suggested by scientific consensus. One of the salient findings is that domestic carbon-reduction policies for the 168 countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement amount to just one-third of what is necessary to limit global temperature rise to the Paris boundary of “well below 2 degrees Celsius.”
At the same time, and perhaps in response, litigating to protect the climate is on the rise. If climate litigation is construed broadly, the past 20 years have seen 654 cases tried in the United States and at least 230 in other jurisdictions.
Is readying our collective casebooks and heading for the courthouse actually the best solution? Litigation, after all, is typically an inefficient method of achieving policy reform. The flagship public-interest law efforts during the civil rights movement provide instructive lessons here, particularly when academics and activists are increasingly extending historical parallels between environmental protection and racial justice to climate change. Even where many of the necessary conditions for successful legal reform strategies are present—as with some of the landmark cases tried by NAACP lawyers—there is a strong argument that lawsuits constrained by narrow legal doctrines and limited remedies will rarely be able to produce the kinds of sweeping economic changes required to combat the approaching climate catastrophe.
And yet, even though the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the parent treaty to the Paris Agreement) was drafted 25 years ago, we still do not have coherent global or local plans to limit destructive warming. The Paris Agreement was certainly the right direction after international law’s failure to achieve binding targets, but bottom-up targets only work when national commitments are extremely ambitious. So, in sum, it seems that litigating to reform energy policy is both utterly inefficient and entirely necessary.
These climate cases are not new, but the types of claims at stake are changing. The first wave of momentous actions in the United States chiefly involved efforts by state governments to compel either the executive or private entities to take action, either by forcing agencies to regulate emissions or forcing companies to steadily abate them. Other legal actions by local interest groups and environmental nongovernmental organizations sought to make agencies take climate change into account in relation to species-specific issues, such as the effect of global warming on food security for grizzly bears. More recent American suits tend to tackle specific deregulation plans or administrative omissions and delays. Success rates for local issues vary, and they are a vital part of an effective mass litigation strategy. However, since an ambitious suit calling power companies to account was unanimously shot down in the Supreme Court in 2011, high-impact litigation efforts slowed considerably while temperature-rise projections accelerated. The early American cases failed to unify scientific narratives, the stories and voices of people affected by climate change, and opportune legal moments.
Climate litigation in other countries, however, tells a different story. Here, it is a story about seizing the law as a means of collective action instead of leaving an elite cadre of lawyers to represent the concerns of a few activists and scientists. That narrative begins with the Urgenda case. A Dutch NGO, headed by one of the professors who first suggested the 2 degrees Celsius target, enlisted almost 900 claimants and alleged that government action was insufficient. Urgenda argued, among other things, that even if the Dutch government was bound by EU emissions targets, commitment did not immunize them from legal liability resulting from human health risks posed by climate change. In 2015, the court ordered the government to cut its emissions by 25 percent by 2020. The argument advanced by Urgenda is particularly relevant in light of the new emissions-gap data—governments cannot rest on the laurels of existing targets to deflect the need for comprehensive action.
Even still, the global impact of Urgenda is as much about the form and optics of litigation as the substantive arguments. Urgenda paved the way for multiclaimant lawsuits that highlight the importance of climate action by giving platforms to those who stand to suffer disproportionate harms. Put differently, this nascent wave of climate litigation is about forcing governments to see climate change as a collective human-rights issue and to take action that reflects the dire picture painted by scientists about climate risks to human health.
A similar claim filed by 450 Swiss women, all at least 65 years of age, is currently pending. Like Urgenda, the claimants argue that existing legal targets are insufficient to safeguard their rights under both the European Convention on Human Rights and Swiss constitutional law.
In Belgium, a lawsuit that closely mirrors Urgenda advertises that citizens can become claimants through their website in just two minutes. That case now has nearly 32,000 co-claimants. The NGO responsible for the claim, Klimaatzaak, has enlisted a range of celebrity ambassadors to bolster its legal campaign through social media.
A group of Portuguese schoolchildren, all from a region plagued by destructive forest fires, is suing 47 countries in the European Court of Human Rights to compel similar emissions reductions in the first instance of multistate climate litigation. In just over a month, they have raised about $35,000 from more than 700 donors through CrowdJustice, a platform that connects ordinary people to public-interest lawsuits.
In the United Kingdom, where I’m based and also the ancestral home of the American common law, our case at Plan B.Earth implores the British government to amend their carbon targets to reflect the need for a net-zero emissions policy. The claimants, aged 9–79, include a rabbi concerned about the imminent humanitarian crisis, university students scared for their future, and a supporter with Mauritian heritage who represents the risk of small island states being submerged. In parallel to Urgenda, the U.K.’s current targets fall short of what climate science tells us is necessary to stop dangerous warming.
These European suits bolster the case for unifying social movements mobilized around climate change with legal ones: We can fight political reluctance with grassroots legal actions around the globe. Environmental lawyers in the United States are not oblivious to this opportunity: Juliana v. United States broke new legal ground by enlisting youth plaintiffs, attempting to repurpose a Roman legal doctrine of contested historical provenance, and alleging a constitutional right to a stable climate. In the first rejection of the government’s argument to throw out that case, Judge Thomas Coffin referred to Urgenda as proof that courts can redress climate change.
Old uncertainties about the climate system are fading. Litigation in Australia has helped force the financial sector to consider climate risks that the oil industry has known about for decades. Litigation in Pakistan has helped remedy profound governmental inaction even where legislation had already been passed. These cases make clear that for all the cozy rhetoric, Champagne, and cheering, legislative and executive branches are not doing enough. We need more legal actions engaging citizens in every country to pressure governments to secure a habitable planet for future generations. A number of these lawsuits could be a hollow hope, but they might be all we have left.
by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles
Mon Nov 13 15:45:00 PST 2017
The world may seem like it’s in shambles, but ocean scientists are having quite a run. Over the last year, the ocean has periodically belched up prehistoric deep sea creatures for photographing, studying, and nightmaring over. The latest find? The brutishly ugly and scientifically storied frilled shark.
On Thursday, scientists trawling Portuguese waters caught one of these snake-bodied beasts. The photos are, naturally, making their way around the internet. Revered as one of the last living fossils, the spade-faced swimmer, which can grow over 6 feet long, has been floating through the fossil record for the last 80 million years.
In addition to its unusual shape, the frilled shark has a number of other noteworthy features. For one, it has more than 300 teeth, in 25 orderly rows. This impressive dental array is useful when it comes to devouring its prey, which includes octopus and smaller sharks. Similarly, like a snake, the frilled shark can open its “beak” wide enough to swallow prey whole. However, its hunting patterns—and much else about the shark’s life—remain mostly a mystery. The shark usually lives deeper in the bottomless depths of the ocean, making human–frilled shark interactions rare.
And the frilled shark isn’t even the rarest sea sighting this year. In June, scientists encountered a faceless fish that hadn’t been seen since 1873. Like a tight-lipped—and gelatinous—demogorgon, the little guy reemerged in Sydney’s harbors after an absence that’d been stretching out over a century. Other researchers also found the world's largest bony fish, which weighs in at a whopping two tons, and a new species of seafloor-loving sponges.
In the immediate aftermath of these discoveres, people tend to feel a lot of reverence for the mysteries of the ocean, as they should. But the real excitement is slowly revealed in the resulting days and months of lab research. Scientists learned, for example, that the “faceless fish” really does have a face (sort of), it's just buried underneath its skin. What they’ll learn about the frilled shark, though, is anyone’s guess.
by Nathalie Baptiste @ Slate Articles
Thu Jan 04 18:46:38 PST 2018
The eastern United States is starting out 2018 the same way it ended 2017: bone-chillingly cold. Many New Year’s Eve revelers endured record-breaking low temperatures, and it’s only going to get colder. Thanks to a weather system known as a bomb cyclone, the entire East Coast is or will soon be subject to subzero temperatures, hurricane-force winds, snow, and ice—including Florida, the Sunshine State.
Snow and ice in Florida is pretty rare. Its capital, Tallahassee, hasn’t seen measurable snow in 28 years.
But despite how strange it is to spot snow on palm trees, the sight doesn’t disprove global warming.
Just like every other time it gets cold enough to require a winter coat, climate change deniers have seized on the chilly weather outside to argue that global warming can’t be happening. They’re wrong—the frigid temperatures might actually be happening because of global warming.
In 2016, Mother Jones reported on Rutgers researcher Jennifer Francis and other scientists who believe that global warming is playing a role in extreme cold snaps:
To understand how it works, it first helps to think of the jet stream as a river of air that flows from west to east in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing with it much of our weather. Its motion—sometimes in a relatively straight path, sometimes in a more loopy one—is driven by a difference in temperatures between the equator and the North Pole. Southern temperatures are of course warmer, and because warm air takes up more space than cold air, this leads to taller columns of air in the atmosphere. “If you were sitting on top of a layer of atmosphere and you were in DC, looking northward, it would be like looking down a hill, because it’s warmer where you are,” explains Francis. The jet stream then flows “downhill,” so to speak, in a northward direction. But it’s also bent by the rotation of the Earth, leading to its continual wavy, eastward motion. As the Arctic rapidly heats up, however, there’s less of a temperature difference between the equator and the poles, and the downhill slope in the atmosphere is accordingly less steep.
That shrinking temperature difference is what wreaks havoc on the jet stream. “When the jet stream gets weaker, it meanders more,” explained Francis in an interview this week. “It wanders north and south and when it gets into one of these wandering and wavy patterns, that’s when we see these pools of cold air pulled southward.”
It’s also important to remember that weather and climate are two different things. As the National Weather Service puts it, “Weather is what you get; climate is what you expect.” The daily temperature is weather, but the averages of those temperatures over long periods of time is climate. So even though much of the country finished out 2017 with record-breaking temperatures, it was still the second-hottest year on record. The clear, long-term trends are far more important than the snow Tallahassee residents are seeing outside today.
by Lila Thulin @ Slate Articles
Thu Dec 07 14:08:43 PST 2017
The images and accounts of the fires ravaging the greater Los Angeles area look like still frames from an apocalyptic film: cars on a highway to hell, charred skeletons of houses, red-tinged skies. You’ve likely seen the images of freeway exit signs backgrounded by blazes or heard Fox News chairman Rupert Murdoch’s Bel-Air vineyard estate was being singed. “These are days that break your heart,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to the Los Angeles Times.
But beyond this horror reel of images, here’s an update on the extent of the numerous brush fires, which, propelled by the strong Santa Ana winds, have torched more than 116,300 acres.
The largest and longest-lasting fire threatening the palm-treed landscape around Los Angeles is the Thomas Fire, which began Monday evening in Ventura County, more than 60 miles northwest of the city. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, as of Thursday morning, the fire has burned 96,000 acres (that’s 150 square miles, or close to three times the size of the largest of the devastating Napa Valley fires this October), but it’s only 5 percent contained.
More than 50,000 residents have been evacuated, and more than 100 structures have been destroyed (including, the Los Angeles Times reports, the Vista del Mar psychiatric hospital). In the course of firefighting, the 101 freeway was shut down between 4 and 7 a.m. Thursday morning, effectively cutting off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. (A woman’s body was found in the evacuation area as part of a single-vehicle crash, but authorities haven’t concluded whether the death was related to the fire.)
The Skirball Fire was Wednesday’s most dramatic headline fodder: It broke out early that morning in the wealthy Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, near UCLA and the famous Getty Museum. It temporarily shut down the 405 freeway, the busiest interstate in the county, during peak morning commute hours. It also prompted UCLA officials to cancel classes for half of Wednesday and all of Thursday. As of Thursday morning, it spanned 475 acres and was only 5 percent contained.
Further north in the Angeles National Forest, the Creek Fire burned 12,605 acres and was 10 percent contained as of Thursday morning. Since its start in the predawn hours Tuesday, it had destroyed 15 structures. California State University, Northridge, canceled classes. While there have been no confirmed human casualties, nearly 30 horses died in the fire, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The last uncontained wildfire covers a 7,000-acre swath of the northern suburb of Santa Clarita. The Rye Fire, which began Tuesday morning, had caused 1,300 homes to evacuate by Wednesday afternoon but had destroyed only one structure and was 15 percent contained by Thursday morning.
What prompted the series of quick-moving wildfires? The brush burning index, a way for the fire department to tabulate risk based on moisture readings, dead vegetation fuel, meteorologist forecasts that factor in humidity and wind, and historical data, is considered to be “extreme” if it’s above 162. But the brush burning index for this Wednesday into Thursday was a whopping 296, the highest the fire chief said he’s ever seen, according to NBC Los Angeles.
The notorious Santa Ana winds this year are especially vicious; CNN reports that the previous time the winds resulted in multiple days of red flags and warnings was a decade ago. Fortunately, on Thursday, the winds did not reach the fire-whipping speeds that forecasters had feared.
And there’s one last thing to keep in mind with these fires: It’s the new normal. As Daniel Berlant, deputy director of Calfire, told the New York Times, “In the last decade we’ve had more and more fires in nontraditional fire season months, which really emphasizes the changing climate that we have here in California.”