The Disgrace of Lamar Smith and the House Science Committee

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 1:37 PM EST

The Washington Post writes today about a long-running feud between die-hard climate-denier Lamar Smith and pretty much anyone who says that climate change is real:

The flash point in the feud between House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is a congressional subpoena. The congressman, a prominent global warming skeptic, is demanding that the government turn over its scientists’ internal exchanges and communications with NOAA’s top political appointees.

Smith believes this information, showing the researchers deliberative process, will prove that they altered data to fit President Obama’s climate agenda when they refuted claims in a peer-reviewed study in the journal Science that global warming had “paused” or slowed over the last decade.

“These are government employees who changed data to show more climate change,” the chairman said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Americans deserve to understand why this decision was made. Despite what some critics claim, the subpoena is not only about scientists. Political operatives and other NOAA employees likely played a large role in approving NOAA’s decision to adjust data that allegedly refutes the hiatus in warming.

Over the last few years, harassment of climate scientists via subpoenas and FOIA requests for every email they've ever written has become the go-to tactic of climate skeptics and deniers. The purpose is twofold. First, it intimidates scientists from performing climate research. Who needs the grief? Second, it provides a chance to find something juicy and potentially embarrassing in the trove of emails.

In the case of Lamar Smith vs. NOAA, the key fact is this: Smith has no reason to think the scientists in question have done anything wrong. None. He doesn't even pretend otherwise. He has simply asserted that it's "likely" that politics played a role in "adjusting" the climate data. But at no time has he presented any evidence at all to back this up.

This is a pretty plain abuse of congressional subpoena power, and so far NOAA is refusing to comply. In the case of private critics using FOIA, it's a pretty clear abuse of FOIA—and one of the reasons that I have some reservations about FOIA that might seem odd coming from a journalist. It's one thing to demand private communications when there's some question of wrongdoing. It's quite another when it's just a fishing expedition undertaken in the hope of finding something titillating.

In any case, Smith is a disgrace, and it's a disgrace that Republicans allow him to chair a committee on science. Smith's view of science is simple: if it backs up his beliefs, it's fine. If it doesn't, it's obviously fraudulent. This is the attitude that leads to defunding of climate research or banning research on guns. After all, there's always the possibility that the results will be inconvenient, and in the world of Smith and his acolytes, that can't be allowed to stand. Full speed ahead and science be damned.

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We Need to Re-Learn the Lessons of the Iraq War

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 12:44 PM EST

Jeff Guo writes about the likelihood that the Paris attacks will inspire reprisals against Muslims:

“This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for — to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,” said Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies how people become terrorists. “Then ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.’”

....The researchers see the Paris attacks increasing radicalization in two potential ways. First, the killings project power and prestige, burnishing ISIS’s image and attracting those who want to feel potent themselves.

Second, the attacks will escalate tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. They have already led to some anti-Muslim activity, and will likely provoke more. Not only will these events make Muslims in the West feel marginalized, but they will also provide extremist propagandists with examples of Western oppression.

What really gets me about this is not just that it's true. It's that we've seen this movie before with Al-Qaeda. We know perfectly well that it's ISIS that wants to turn this into a war of civilizations, just as Al-Qaeda wanted to do. It's no secret. Why are so many conservative hawks so willing to play along with this?

More generally, it's astonishing—or depressing, take your pick—how soon we forget what we learned just a few years ago. Should we send a massive force into Anbar to crush ISIS once and for all? Well, we've tried that before. Remember? We sent a massive force into Iraq and, sure enough, we toppled Saddam Hussein's regular army units pretty quickly. Then, despite a huge military presence, the country fell apart. The Sunni insurgency lasted for years before it was finally beaten back. Then the Shiite government of Iraq decided that fealty to its Shia supporters was more important than uniting their country, and before long Anbar was in flames again, this time with ISIS leading the charge.

You want to take out ISIS? Me too. But if you want to do it fast in order to demonstrate how tough you are, it's going to require 100,000 troops or more; it will cost hundreds or thousands of American lives; and the bill will run to tens of billions of dollars. Remember Fallujah? It took the better part of a year and nearly 15,000 troops to take a medium-sized city held by a few thousand poorly trained militants. Now multiply that by ten or so. And multiply the casualties by 10 or 20 or 30 too. This isn't two armies facing off on the field of battle. It's house-to-house fighting against local insurgents, which isn't something we're especially good at.

Still, we could do it. The problem is that President Obama is right: unless we leave a permanent occupying force there, it will just blow up yet again—especially if we take Ted Cruz's advice and decide we don't really care about civilian casualties. Having defeated Al-Qaeda 2.0, we'll end up with Al-Qaeda 3.0. Aside from a permanent occupation, the only thing that can stop this is an Iraqi government that takes Sunni grievances seriously and is genuinely willing to govern in a non-sectarian way.

This isn't just a guess. We went through this just a few years ago. But everyone seems to have forgotten it already. Just send in the troops and crush the bastards! That worked great against the Nazis. It doesn't work so great in Iraq.

The Latest on Paris Attacks and the Campaign Against ISIS

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 12:39 PM EST

On Tuesday, Russian officials confirmed for the first time that a homemade explosive was found on the downed Metrojet airliner that crashed in Egypt last month, killing all 224 people on board.

Shortly after the confirmation, Russia announced the country was stepping up air strikes in Syria, hoping to work directly with France in the fight against ISIS.

"We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them," President Vladimir Putin said in a meeting with Russian security authorities.

Russia's FSB security service also announced a $50 million reward for anyone who could provide intelligence leading to the arrests of the terrorists responsible for the attack.

The announcement comes amid the ongoing international manhunt for suspects connected to the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday. Authorities are said to be specifically targeting Belgian-born, 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, the suspected eighth terrorist behind Friday's siege.

On Monday, authorities conducted 128 overnight raids throughout France, searching for people involved with the attacks. Several arrests in Germany have already been made, but officials say they were not "closely"connected" to Friday's attacks.

On Tuesday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made an official request to the European Union for assistance in the fight against ISIS. The Associated Press reports French President Francois Hollande will meet with President Obama in Washington and President Putin in Moscow next week to discuss the international effort. 

State Department Says Governors Can't Stop Refugees From Entering Their States

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 12:37 PM EST

On Monday, as more than a dozen mostly Republican governors pledged to block Syrian refugees from being resettled in their states, the State Department was mum about the legal ramifications, offering only a cautious statement that its lawyers were looking into it. By Tuesday, apparently, that review had been completed.

"This is a federal program carried out under the authority of federal law and refugees arriving in the United States are protected by the Constitution and federal law," a senior State Department official told reporters on a conference call, when asked about the governors' statements. Simply put, once a refugee has come to the United States, "he or she is also free to move anywhere in the country," just like anyone else. And there's nothing Bobby Jindal or Chris Christie can do about it.

But, the official was quick to point out, the government also wasn't interested in resettling refugees unilaterally. Although state and local governments have only a consultative role in the process, "this is a program that is very much dependent on the support of local communities" to make the adjustment to a new life work—picking a new arrival up at the airport, furnishing a new house, finding gainful employment, and providing access to health care. And in that respect, the governors' strongest bargaining chip might be their open hostility. "We don't want to send refugees anywhere where they would not be welcomed."

Adele's New Song Is Every Bit As Good As You Want It to Be

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 12:34 PM EST

We were teased yesterday on Twitter and Facebook by an ad for an exclusive performance on 60 Minutes Australia. Now you can watch the full performance of Adele's new new song, "When We Were Young," the follow up to her first single in three years, "Hello", and the second song from the forthcoming album "25." The film clip is directed by Paul Dugdale, and shot at The Church Studios, the legendary north London recording spot.

For fans of Adele, the main feeling is relief—that it's a real comeback. Here's the conversation I had with Mother Jones creative director Ivylise Simones when she texted me urgently this morning with the link:

Here's that teaser for the 60 Minutes interview:

And just for the die-hard fans, here's a GIF of that diva moment, sized for Twitter's 2MB limit, to be used at your leisure:

Liberals Should Knock Off the Mockery Over Calls to Limit Syrian Refugees

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 11:45 AM EST

Chris Cillizza on the post-Paris push among Republicans to keep Syrian refugees out of the country:

Over the past 24 hours, almost half of the nation's governors — all but one of them Republicans — have said they plan to refuse to allow Syrian immigrants into their states in the wake of the Paris attacks carried out by the Islamic State....That stance has been greeted with widespread ridicule and disgust by Democrats who insist that keeping people out of the U.S. is anathema to the founding principles of the country.

....Think what you will, but one thing is clear: The political upside for Republican politicians pushing an immigration ban on Syrians and/or Muslims as a broader response to the threat posed by the Islamic State sure looks like a political winner.

Cillizza has some poll numbers to back this up, but he's right in more ways than just that. Here's the thing: to the average person, it seems perfectly reasonable to be suspicious of admitting Syrian refugees to the country. We know that ISIS would like to attack the US. We know that ISIS probably has the wherewithal to infiltrate a few of its people into the flood of refugees. And most voters have no idea how easy it is to get past US screening. They probably figure it's pretty easy.

So to them it doesn't seem xenophobic or crazy to call for an end to accepting Syrian refugees. It seems like simple common sense. After all, things changed after Paris.

Mocking Republicans over this—as liberals spent much of yesterday doing on my Twitter stream—seems absurdly out of touch to a lot of people. Not just wingnut tea partiers, either, but plenty of ordinary centrists too. It makes them wonder if Democrats seriously see no problem here. Do they care at all about national security? Are they really that detached from reality?

The liberal response to this should be far more measured. We should support tight screening. Never mind that screening is already pretty tight. We should highlight the fact that we're accepting a pretty modest number of refugees. In general, we should act like this is a legitimate thing to be concerned about and then work from there.

Mocking it is the worst thing we could do. It validates all the worst stereotypes about liberals that we put political correctness ahead of national security. It doesn't matter if that's right or wrong. Ordinary people see the refugees as a common sense thing to be concerned about. We shouldn't respond by essentially calling them idiots. That way lies electoral disaster.

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Charlie Sheen Reveals He Is HIV Positive

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 8:59 AM EST

Actor Charlie Sheen confirmed on Tuesday morning that he is HIV positive and has known about his diagnosis for about four years.

"I am here to admit that I am in fact HIV positive," he told Matt Lauer on the Today show.

"It's a hard three letters to absorb," he said. "It's a turning point in one's life."

The troubled television actor also revealed he has been the victim of several extortion plots and has paid people millions to keep them from going public with his diagnosis. Sheen told Lauer that the sexual partners he had unprotected sex with after he was diagnosed were being cared for by his doctor.

Sheen's revelation comes one day after a National Enquirer cover story speculated on his diagnosis. Rumors about the 50-year-old actor's health started swirling after several blind item reports were published, including a RadarOnline story that appeared two weeks prior. Many of the stories were believed to be pointing to Sheen.

"I have to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks and of sub-truths and very harmful and mercurial stories that are about me, that threaten the health of so many others that couldn't be further from the truth," he said on Tuesday, alluding to the mounting tabloid reports.

CIA Director Delivers Some Blunt Talk About....Climate Change

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 12:28 AM EST

In an address this morning, the New York Times says CIA director John Brennan used "unusually raw language" to talk about covert surveillance programs. Here's what Brennan said:

In the past several years because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of handwringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists, there have been some policy and legal and other actions that are taken that make our ability collectively internationally to find these terrorists much more challenging. And I do hope that this is going to be a wake-up call, particularly in areas of Europe where I think there has been a misrepresentation of what the intelligence security services are doing by some quarters that are designed to undercut those capabilities.

I don't happen to think that a concern over a massive program of warrantless domestic surveillance is "handwringing," but OK. That's Brennan's opinion. However, for all the people pointing to Brennan as a voice of authority for his blunt talk about surveillance, how about if we also pay attention to his blunt talk about climate change?

Across the globe, in both authoritarian and democratic societies, governments are finding it increasingly difficult to meet the demands, realistic or not, of their skeptical and restive populaces....Mankind’s relationship with the natural world is aggravating these problems and is a potential source of crisis itself. Last year was the warmest on record, and this year is on track to be even warmer. Extreme weather, along with public policies affecting food and water supplies, can worsen or create humanitarian crises. Of the most immediate concern, sharply reduced crop yields in multiple places simultaneously could trigger a shock in food prices with devastating effect, especially in already fragile regions such as Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

There's some real talk for you, straight from the mouth of the CIA director.

This Video of a Guy Getting This Close to Obama and Putin Might Be the Best Video of the Year

| Mon Nov. 16, 2015 8:43 PM EST

For more than 30 minutes on Sunday, President Barack Obama could be seen huddling on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting in Antalya, Turkey, in conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and two aides, apparently hashing out a plan to deal with the chaos in Syria. "President Obama and President Putin agreed on the need for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition," the White House said.

Now, state-backed broadcaster Russia Today has released a video of the incident—in which a man seems to be trying to listen in on the high-stakes conversation between the leaders.

Look, I'm no fan of Russia Today, and its propaganda-choked airwaves. And it's true we don't know exactly what this guy is doing or what he's thinking. Homeboy might just be chilling out with that funny smirk and a truckload of self-consciousness, and his funny use of his cell phone, and the odd way he keeps glancing at the camera. We'll never know. But just look at that face. It's very funny:

Watch the full video, posted Monday:

h/t My friend Steph Harmon, out-going editor of Junkee. Congrats on the new gig.

Congratulations! Americans Are Pretty Honest Folks.

| Mon Nov. 16, 2015 8:31 PM EST

Let's switch the subject to pop sociology. Or maybe it's pop anthropology. I can never quite keep them separate. Anyway, this post is about a recent study that investigates which countries are most honest.

David Hugh-Jones a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, recruited about 100 people each from eight countries and sat them down for an online test. First, they were told to flip a coin and report the results. Second, they took a short music quiz that included three really hard questions—but they were told not to use the internet to look up the answers. If their coin came up heads, they got $5. If they got a perfect score on the quiz, they got $5.

You would expect 50 percent of the players to flip heads, so anything above 50 percent represents cheating. You would expect roughly zero percent of the players to get more than one of the hard questions correct, so any mean score above one also represents cheating.

Hugh-Jones did not himself concoct an overall honesty score, so I went ahead and made up one myself. I just normalized the scores on each of the two tests to 100 and then averaged them together. The chart below tells the tale.

So there you go. The Chinese are the least honest and Brits are the most honest. Does this mean anything? It might, assuming you think this methodology actually tells us anything meaningful about national attitudes toward honesty. I pretty much don't, for a whole bunch of reasons. But I was feeling kind of desperate to write about something other than ISIS, so here you go.

UPDATE: This post was originally based on a working version of the paper that included only eight countries and came to some conclusions that the final paper didn't. I have rewritten the post and redrawn the chart to represent the results of the final paper.