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Clarence Thomas Can't Catch a Break

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 10:47 AM EDT

Yesterday the New York Times ran a story saying that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hoisted language from briefs submitted to the court "at unusually high rates." I was curious to see the actual numbers, so I opened up the study itself. Here's the relevant excerpt from Figure 2:

I dunno. Does that look "unusually high" to you? It looks to me like it's about the same as Sotomayor, and only a bit higher than Ginsburg, Alito and Roberts. It's a little hard to see the news here, especially given this:

Since his views on major legal questions can be idiosyncratic and unlikely to command a majority, he is particularly apt to be assigned the inconsequential and technical majority opinions that the justices call dogs. They often involve routine cases involving taxes, bankruptcy, pensions and patents, in which shared wording, including quotations from statutes and earlier decisions, is particularly common.

So at most, Thomas uses language from briefs only slightly more than several other justices, and that's probably because he gets assigned the kinds of cases where it's common to do that. Is there even a story here at all?

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"They Would Have Killed You All"

Here's how Katrina destroyed the lives of poor black women.

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Protesters block demolition equipment from entering a portion of the B.W. Cooper public housing complex in New Orleans in December 2007.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina displaced 40,000 people in New Orleans, opinions about the recovery can be traced along racial lines. A pair of new studies underscores that African American women, particularly those who lived in public housing, faced some of the biggest hurdles after the storm.

Nearly four in five white residents in New Orleans say their state has "mostly recovered," while nearly three in five African American residents say it has not, according to survey results released Monday by the Louisiana-based Public Policy Research Lab. More than half of all residents, regardless of race, said the government did not listen to them enough during the recovery, but African American women struggled more than any other group to return to their homes in the months and years after the hurricane, PPRL noted.

On Tuesday, a study by the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research found that recovery policies in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina largely ignored the needs of African American women who lived in four of the city's largest public housing complexes. These women were forced to move into more expensive housing, and some had to relocate to areas where they faced racial intimidation.

The study, based on interviews with 184 low-income black women, offers a look at how redevelopment efforts affected some of the city's most vulnerable residents. A majority of the women interviewed said they wanted to move back to their homes but were unable to do so because city and federal officials demolished the buildings in the years after the storm.

The demolition plan, announced in 2006 by the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), aimed to deconcentrate poverty in the city by replacing the public housing complexes with mixed-income housing. However, the new developments included fewer low-income apartments, which meant many people had to pay more for housing.

The decision to raze the public housing complexes seemed odd to some former residents because HUD had found them to be structurally sound after the storm, the IWPR reported. Here's what a 70-year-old retired grandmother told the research group:

The buildings were good, strong buildings. Now, if they say they couldn't be renovated, well, that's a different story, but they had some buildings in worse shape and they're doing them over…I'm very disappointed with our elected officials. They turned their backs on us.

Many of the women interviewed by the IWPR said that even though public housing hadn't been ideal, they felt safest in their former homes. There, they had known all their neighbors, and the brick apartment buildings had withstood the hurricane's winds and subsequent flooding. There had even been a saying among poor residents in the city that if a storm ever came, you should "get to the bricks."

One woman who had lived in the C.J. Peete housing project believed the razing of her building was unjustified.

Bad as the waters were, it did not go into our houses. That was one of the projects that I think they just wanted to tear down. They could have left that project there…They had people coming from other places to come stay in the projects, but they never came down because they are brick.

After nearly three decades living in the C.J. Peete complex, another elderly woman with diabetes and arthritis told researchers that she was forced to move temporarily to a community known for Ku Klux Klan activity.

In Baker [where the emergency trailer park for displaced people was], [the crosses] was all over. Ah, Baker was the main headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan…This white man walked up and he said, ah, "If you all would've came here in the '60s…I'm so glad you all didn't come…Oh, you all would've been dead…They would've killed you all." They put us in a pasture where the cows and horses was living. That's where the trailer was.

To read more of of these stories, check out the report by the IWPR here.

Either 35, 36, or 39 Percent of Psychology Results Can't Be Replicated

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 1:04 AM EDT

The Washington Post informs me today that in a new study, only 39 out of 100 published psychology studies could be replicated:

I wonder if I can replicate that headline? Let's try the New York Times:

Huh. They say 35 out of 100. What's going on? Maybe Science News can tell me:

Now it's 35 out of 97. So what is the answer?

Based on the study itself, it appears that Science News has it right. It's 35 out of 97. Using a different measure of replication, however, the answer is that 39 percent of the studies could be replicated, which might explain the Post's 39 out of 100. And it turns out that the study actually looked at 100 results, but only 97 of them had positive findings in the first place and were therefore worth trying to replicate. But if, for some reason, you decided that all 100 original studies should be counted, you'd get the Times' 35 out of 100.

So there you go. Depending on who you read, it's either 35, 36, or 39 percent. Welcome to the business of science reporting.

Joe Biden Isn't Sure He Has the "Emotional Fuel" to Run for President

Biden finally publicly comments on his potential 2016 run.

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 11:10 PM EDT

This is the first hard evidence we have that Joe Biden is seriously thinking about a presidential run:

On Wednesday he made his first public comments on his potential 2016 run — though not intentionally. CNN posted audio recorded during what was supposed to be a private conference call for Democratic National Committee members in which the vice-president confirmed that he's actively considering entering the campaign...."We're dealing at home with ... whether or not there is the emotional fuel at this time to run," Biden responded.

I've got nothing but sympathy for what Biden is going through right now, but the fact remains: If you're not sure you have the fuel for a grueling presidential campaign, then you don't.

Undercover Video Exposes the Dark Side of Chicken McNuggets

McDonald's quickly cuts ties with a Tennessee poultry farm after a video documents savage bird beatings.

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 5:44 PM EDT

Back in 2013, a proposed law that would have criminalized the act of secretly videotaping abuses on livestock farms—known by critics as an "ag gag" bill—failed in Tennessee. A least one of the state's chicken operations has reason to lament that defeat. An undercover investigator with the animal-welfare group Mercy For Animals managed to record the above footage at T&S Farm in Dukedom, Tennessee, which supplies chickens for slaughter to poultry-processing giant Tyson—which in turn supplies chicken meat for McDonald's Chicken McNuggets.

For those too squeamish to watch, the video opens with a worker saying, "You don't work for PETA, do you?," before proceeding to pummel a sickly bird to death with a long stick—which, for good measure, is outfitted with a nasty-looking spike attached to its business end. More beatings of sickly birds proceed from there. 

Both the poultry giant and the fast-food giant quickly cut ties with the exposed Tennessee poultry farm, The Wall Street Journal reports

Donald Trump: The Bible Is Great, But, Um, Let's Not Get Into Specifics

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 5:30 PM EDT

As a blogger, it's hard not to love Donald Trump. Here's the latest, in an interview with Mark Halperin and John Heilemann:

I'm wondering what one or two of your most favorite Bible verses are and why.

Well, I wouldn't want to get into it because to me that's very personal. You know, when I talk about the Bible it's very personal. So I don't want to get into verses, I don't want to get into—the Bible means a lot to me, but I don't want to get into specifics.

Even to cite a verse that you like?

No, I don't want to do that.

Are you an Old Testament guy or a New Testament guy?

Uh, probably....equal. I think it's just an incredible....the whole Bible is an incredible....I joke....very much so. They always hold up The Art of the Deal, I say it's my second favorite book of all time. But, uh, I just think the Bible is just something very special.

OK, it's not only Trump I love. Props also to Heilemann for asking Trump if he's an OT guy or an NT guy. Who talks about the Bible that way?

We've seen this schtick from Trump before, of course. He's stunningly ignorant, and routinely refuses to answer whenever someone asks about a factual detail more than an inch below the surface. Needless to say, he refuses because he doesn't know, but he always pretends it's for some other reason. "I don't want to insult anyone by naming names," he'll say, as if this isn't his entire stock in trade. Or, in this case, "It's personal," as if he's a guy who leads a deep personal life that he never talks about.

The interesting thing is that this schtick also shows how lazy he is. It's been evident for several days that someone was eventually going to ask him for his favorite Bible verse, but he couldn't be bothered to bone up even a little bit in order to have one on tap. Ditto for everything else. Even when he says something that's going to raise obvious questions the next day, he never bothers to learn anything about the subject. I guess he figures he's got people for that.

Of course, there is an advantage to handling things this way. By shutting down the Bible talk completely, he guarantees he'll never have to talk about it again. I mean, today it's Bible verses, tomorrow somebody might want him to name the Ten Commandments. And since it's pretty obvious that he hasn't cracked open the Bible in decades, that could get hairy pretty fast. Better to shut it down right away.

POSTSCRIPT: So which is Trump? OT or NT? I expect that he admires the OT God more. That's a deity who knows what he wants and doesn't put up with any PC nonsense about it. Plus they built a lot of stuff in the Old Testament: towers, walls, arks, temples, etc. That would appeal to Trump. On the other hand, the New Testament has all those annoying lessons about the meek inheriting the earth, rich men and needles, turning the other cheek, and a bunch of other advice that Trump has no time for.

So: Old Testament. Definitely Old Testament.

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Monsanto Halts Its Bid to Buy Rival Syngenta—For Now

A clash of agribiz titans takes a breather.

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 4:17 PM EDT

After four months of hot pursuit, genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto formally ended its bid to buy rival Syngenta Wednesday—at least for now. Earlier in the week, Monsanto had sweetened its offer for the Swiss agrochemical behemoth—most famous for its controversial atrazine herbicide and neonicotinoid pesticides—to $47 billion, in an effort to convince Syngenta's management and shareholders to accept the merger. They balked, and Monsanto management opted to halt the effort, declaring in a press release that it would instead "focus on its growth opportunities built on its existing core business to deliver the next wave of transformational solutions for agriculture." 

However, Monsanto may just be pausing, not fully halting, its buyout push. The company's press release states that it's "no longer pursuing [the] current proposal" (emphasis added) to buy its rival, and quickly added that the combination "would have created tremendous value for shareowners of both companies and farmers." And as Dow Jones' Jacob Bunge notes, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant "has coveted Syngenta since at least 2011, and said in a June interview that he viewed the effort as 'a long game.'" 

The logic that has driven Monsanto's zeal for a deal remains in place: It wants to diversify away from its reliance on seeds by buying Syngenta, the world's biggest purveyor of pesticides (more on that here). 

Meanwhile, Monsanto has been actively hyping up a new generation of pesticides, still in the development stage, which work by killing crop-chomping pests by silencing certain genes. But the company doesn't expect the novel sprays to hit the market until 2020—a timeline that may be overly optimistic, as I show here

How Much Is 1.6 Months of Life Worth?

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 3:04 PM EDT

From Carolyn Johnson at Wonkblog:

With some cancer drug prices soaring past $10,000 a month....

Hey, that's me! A friendly FedEx delivery person just delivered this month's $10,000 supply to me an hour ago. So, what's up?

With some cancer drug prices soaring past $10,000 a month, doctors have begun to ask one nagging question: Do drug prices correctly reflect the value they bring to patients by extending or improving their lives?

A study published Thursday in JAMA Oncology aims to answer that question by examining necitumumab, an experimental lung cancer drug....in a clinical trial, researchers found that adding the drug to chemotherapy extended life by 1.6 months, on average.

....In order to estimate what the price of this drug "should" be based on its value to patients, the research team modeled various scenarios....one additional year in perfect health in the U.S. is worth somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000....Based on their calculations, the drug should cost from $563 to $1,309 for a three-week cycle.

....There are many variables that go into the price of a drug, but mounting evidence suggests that the value it brings to patients is not the biggest factor. "How they price the drug is they price it at whatever the market is willing to bear," said Benjamn Djulbegovic, an oncologist at the University of South Florida.

Well, sure, but this raises the question of why the market is willing to bear such high prices. Why would an insurance company approve a large expenditure for a drug that has only a tiny benefit?

There's a lot that goes into this. Obviously some people benefit from necitumumab by a lot more than 1.6 months—and there's no way to tell beforehand who will and who won't. And it costs a lot to develop these drugs. And patients put a lot of pressure on insurers to cover anything that might help. And, in the end, insurance companies don't have a ton of incentive to push back: if drug prices go up, they increase their premiums. It doesn't really affect their bottom line much.

There's also the size of the total market to consider. The chemo drug I'm currently taking, for example, is only used for two conditions. There's just not a whole lot of us using it. In cases like that, a drug is going to be pretty expensive.

But here's something I'm curious about: who puts more pressure on insurance companies to cover expensive drugs, patients or doctors? My doctor, for example, was totally gung-ho about my current med. I was much less so after I read some of the clinical studies online. Why? Because most chemo drugs have unpleasant side effects (though mine has turned out OK so far), which means that, like many patients, I'm reluctant to take them unless the benefit is pretty clear cut. Doctors, on the other hand, just want to do whatever they can to help, and have no particular incentive to hold back. So maybe it's doctors who need to be in the forefront of pushing back on expensive drugs. They're the ones in the doctor-patient relationship who know the most, after all.

Trump: "This Isn't a Gun Problem, This Is a Mental Problem."

The Republican front-runner says he's "a very strong Second Amendment person."

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 2:24 PM EDT

A day after two journalists in Virginia were fatally shot on live television, Donald Trump is rejecting calls to strengthen gun control laws. Instead, he told CNN's Chris Cuomo today that mental health issues are to blame for gun violence in America. This isn't a gun problem, this is a mental problem," the presidential hopeful said.

"You're not going to get rid of all guns," Trump added. "I know one thing: If you try to do it, the bad guys would have them. And the good folks would abide by the laws but be hopeless." The real state mogul defended the Second Amendment, which he said he was "very much into."

Trump's opposition to stricter gun legislation in favor of focusing on mental health problems is not new. But many experts argue such thinking is flawed. "Consider that between 2001 and 2010, there were nearly 120,000 gun-related homicides…Few were perpetrated by people with mental illness," psychiatry professor Richard A. Friedman wrote in the New York Times after the Newtown shooting in 2012.

Trump is just one of the 2016 candidates to weigh in following the murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward on Wednesday morning. Speaking at a press conference in Iowa, Hillary Clinton told reporters that she was "stricken" by the shooting. "We have got to do something about gun violence in America," Clinton said. "And I will take it on."

Speaking to Fox News' Megyn Kelly on Wednesday night, the father of one of the victims vowed to fight for increased gun control measures. "Whatever it takes to get gun legislation, to shame people, to shame legislators into doing something about closing loopholes and background checks and making sure crazy people don't get guns," Andy Parker said.

Saul Bellow Was 30 Years Ahead of Me

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 1:50 PM EDT

Here's a fascinating little August tidbit, via Jeet Heer on Twitter. It's an excerpt from The Dean's December, by Saul Bellow, published in 1981. Albert Corde, an academic, is talking to a scientist (obviously modeled on the seminal lead researcher Clair Patterson) about the "real explanation of what goes on in the slums":

"And the explanation? What is the real explanation?"

"Millions of tons of intractable lead residues poisoning the children of the poor. They're the most exposed....Crime and social disorganization in inner city populations can all be traced to the effects of lead. It comes down to the nerves, to brain damage."

....Direct material causes? Of course. Who could deny them? But what was odd was that no other causes were conceived of. "So it's lead, nothing but old lead?" he said.

"I would ask you to study the evidence."

And that was what Corde now began to do, reading through stapled documents, examining graphs....What was the message?....A truly accurate method of detecting tiny amounts of lead led to the discovery that the cycle of lead in the earth had been strongly perturbed. The conclusion: Chronic lead insult now affects all mankind....Mental disturbances resulting from lead poison are reflected in terrorism, barbarism, crime, cultural degradation.

....Tetraethyl fumes alone could do it—engine exhaust—and infants eating flaking lead paint in the slums became criminal morons.

What's interesting is the mention of crime. Lead was a well-known neurotoxin by 1981, strongly implicated in educational problems and loss of IQ. So it's no big surprise that it might pop up as a prop in a novel. But nobody was yet linking it to the rise of violent crime. That would wait for another 20 years. And a truly credible case for the link between lead and crime wouldn't appear for yet another decade, when the necessary data became available and technology had advanced enough to produce convincing brain studies. Neither of those was available in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, the germ of the idea was there. In a way, that's not surprising: I've always felt that, given what we know about what lead does to the childhood brain, its link to violent crime should never have been hard to accept. It would actually be surprising if childhood lead exposure didn't have an effect on violent crime.

Anyway, that's it. Your literary connection of the day to one of my favorite topics.