2012 - %3, April

Is it Science or is It Fraud?

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 11:26 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago I published a chart showing that conservative trust in science has plummeted over the past few decades, while liberal and independent attitudes have remained fairly steady (liberals with high trust levels and indies with low trust levels). However, several commenters pointed out that this result was derived from GSS survey data, and the actual question was about institutions:

I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them?

So conservatives were becoming less confident in the people who run the scientific community, which is not quite the same as becoming less confident in science as a discipline. This is fair up to a point, though I suspect that most people answering the question don't generally make distinctions quite that fine. What's more, in the aftermath of the 70s liberals had plenty of reason to lose confidence in some aspects of the scientific community too — this was a period in which corporate sponsorship of science was a growing flashpoint — but that didn't cause them to change their general level of trust. The Reagan-era decline was solely a conservative phenomenon.

All that said, though, the New York Times reported a couple of days ago that over the past decade or so there might well be reason for all of us to be a little more skeptical of scientific results than we have been. A couple of years ago, Dr. Ferric Fang, editor in chief of Infection and Immunity, discovered that one of his authors had doctored several papers:

Dr. Fang became curious how far the rot extended. To find out, he teamed up with a fellow editor at the journal, Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. And before long they reached a troubling conclusion: not only that retractions were rising at an alarming rate, but that retractions were just a manifestation of a much more profound problem — “a symptom of a dysfunctional scientific climate,” as Dr. Fang put it.

....Last month, in a pair of editorials in Infection and Immunity, the two editors issued a plea for fundamental reforms. They also presented their concerns at the March 27 meeting of the National Academies of Sciences committee on science, technology and the law. Members of the committee agreed with their assessment. “I think this is really coming to a head,” said Dr. Roberta B. Ness, dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health. And Dr. David Korn of Harvard Medical School agreed that “there are problems all through the system.”

....Critics like Dr. Fang and Dr. Casadevall argue that science has changed in some worrying ways in recent decades — especially biomedical research, which consumes a larger and larger share of government science spending.

It's not clear how far this extends outside the biomedical community, and it's also not clear if this is genuinely new behavior, or if bad papers are simply more likely to get caught than in the past. Either way, though, the research community in general had better listen to Fang. Declining public trust in science may be primarily a conservative phenomenon right now, motivated by hostility toward evolution and climate science, but independents have had low trust levels ever since the 70s, and there are plenty of liberals who could probably be tipped into the anti-science camp pretty easily too. Time to clean house, folks.

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READ: Letter to Justice Department About Alleged Proxy Detainee Yonas Fikre

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 11:01 AM EDT
Yonas Fikre, who claims he was detained and tortured at the behest of the US government, is shown here in a still image from a video recorded by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Earlier this week, I broke the story of Yonas Fikre, a 33-year-old Muslim American from Oregon who claims that he was detained and tortured in the United Arab Emirates on behalf of the US government. Fikre is now in Sweden, where he and his lawyers were scheduled to hold a press conference on Wednesday morning. On Wednesday, Portland's Willamette Week and Oregonian published stories on Fikre's ordeal. Oregon Public Broadcasting adds the detail that Fikre has applied for asylum in Sweden.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has been helping Fikre, has given me a copy of a letter the group sent to Thomas Perez, the head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, describing Fikre's ordeal, asking that Perez investigate "whether Mr. Fikre was detained and tortured at the behest of any agent of the U.S. government," and demanding that he be allowed to return to the United States without "further unconstitutional interference." You can read it here:

Guess What? Pretending That Everyone Should Go to College Turns Out Not to Work

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 10:45 AM EDT

Several years ago the Los Angeles Unified School District decided that every high school student should take and pass college prep classes in order to graduate. Most infamously this included an algebra requirement, but it was much broader than just that. Would this produce more dropouts? Sure, but everyone was told we'd just have to bite the bullet and accept that.

Well, it's now bullet-biting time as the new requirements finally take effect, and guess what? Bullets aren't really all that tasty:

On Tuesday, district officials backtracked, offering details of a proposal to reduce overall graduation requirements and allow students to pass those classes with a D grade. They must change course, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said, or they would open the doors to scores of dropouts and others who can't pass the more rigorous requirements. The new plan, which still must be approved by the board, would allow students to graduate with 25% fewer credits.

"If we don't do something, we have to be prepared to be pushing out kids as dropouts," said Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino at a school-board committee meeting Tuesday. "We face a massive dropout rate in four years."

The idea, apparently, is that by requiring fewer credits, struggling kids will have more opportunity to repeat classes that they failed the first time around. That doesn't sound like much of a plan to make staying in high school more attractive.

I know this is an argument that's been played out thousands of times in hundreds of places already, but it just seems crazy to me. Encouraging everyone to take college prep classes is fine, but college prep just isn't the same thing as high school graduation. At least, it shouldn't be. There has to be some societal recognition of an achievement level in between "dropout," as traditionally conceived, and being prepared to attend college. We can pretend all we want, but not every 18-year-old is ready and able to attend even a community college, and effectively labeling all of these kids as dropouts is nuts. If politics weren't enough to make me think we've gone collectively crazy already, stuff like this would do the trick.

Is Healthcare Just a Large-Scale Accounting Issue?

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 9:52 AM EDT

Karl Smith has an odd response to my post last night about Abbott Labs and its efforts to make sure that a generic version of TriCor would never see the light of day:

This is a part of a longer point but it's important to note that it's not clear that health care costs were raised as a part of this....Mostly it seems that at worst money was transferred from consumers and taxpayers to TriCor. This is not an economic cost. It is simply redistribution.

....However, as generally used the phrase “high health care costs” doesn’t refer to anything that makes any economic sense and so it's not clear what the appropriate remedy is. I would like to encourage people to be more explicit about the real problems that they perceive rather than extensive references to large scale accounting issues.

Just for the record, then: when I say "high healthcare costs," what I mean is "lots of money flowing to heathcare entities." I'm pretty sure that's what everyone else means too. I know that Karl likes to be contrarian, but calling this a mere large-scale accounting issue is surely a little bit too Olympian even for him, isn't it?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 18, 2012

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 9:32 AM EDT

US Army Staff Sgt. Charles Stokes pauses while on patrol in a local village near Combat Outpost Terezayi in Afghanistan's Khowst province, on April 10, 2012. Photo by the US Army.

A Wee Bit of Navel Gazing

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 9:21 AM EDT

What follows is navel gazing of the worst kind, so there's no need to remind me of this in comments. But the chart below is sort of weirdly fascinating anyway. Based on data from Andy Baio, it represents the linking behavior of the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog over time. Positive numbers indicate that a blog links mostly to stories favored by liberals, and my linking behavior, from January 2007 through August 2008, was moderately biased to the left (a value of .05 places you in about the leftmost 20%). Then Steve Benen took over, and the blog immediately began linking overwhelmingly to stories favored by liberals. But over time, Steve became more ecumenical, and by January of this year he was favoring liberal stories only slightly more than I had.

I have no conclusions to draw from this. It's just pure wankerific navel gazing. Do with it what you will.

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Tom's Kitchen: Ice Cream to Melt the Blues

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Somewhere, there exists a photo of three-year-old me with an ice cream cone crammed by my tiny fist into my face, which is marked with dark splotches of Rocky Road. My expression is focused, beatific, like that of a religious fanatic at prayer. To this day, I remember howls of adult laughter echoing around me. I didn't give a damn—what mattered was getting that creamy, crunchy, sweet stuff into my mouth.

I try to play it cooler these days, but the joy I take in the famed cold confection has changed little. I don't eat ice cream everyday, as my three-year-old self vowed I would once I threw off the yolk of adult meddling. But I do love a little of it it now and then, especially when I'm feeling dented.

Then: Booze, Oysters, and "Gilded Vice." Now: Mother Jones

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

If you happened to be in downtown San Francisco on the eve of the 1906 earthquake and were in the mood for booze, seafood, and other vices, you couldn't do much better than coming to the future home of Mother Jones. Today, our building on Sutter Street houses other respectable outfits including an upscale bakery, Loehmann's, and Craigslist. But back before the great fire obliterated it exactly 106 years ago, this spot epitomized the city's old, seamy ways.

In 1877, a couple of Canadian brothers, Frank and Jesse Gobey, opened Gobey's Saloon in the Rose Building at 228 Sutter Street. When Frank Gobey died suddenly at age 56 in 1895, the Chronicle stated that his bar and restaurant was "a notable gathering place for the inhabitants of the 'tenderloin,' but as it was always conducted in a quiet and orderly manner it was never the scene of any trouble." Whether the reporter did not wish to speak ill of the dead or was being sarcastic isn't clear, but it seems that Gobey's was anything but staid.

Future home of Mother Jones: Gobey's Saloon is the door on the left.  : San Francisco Public LibraryMen could enter Gobey's Saloon via the door on the far left. Women and their chaperones had to sneak in the back. San Francisco Public LibraryJust a year before Frank Gobey's death, the saloon was the site of a celebrated incident following the annual "big game" between Stanford and UC Berkeley. As football fans packed the bar, a young swell shot and wounded Stanford player Louis "Brick" Whitehouse and another patron. When the reporters arrived, Gobey was heard telling his staff to "say nothing to no one" about the shooting, much to the chagrin of the police. In 1895, Gobey's was found to be serving counterfeit champagne, though only the distributor was charged. In 1897, Jesse Gobey was accused of running a nickel slot machine, but was let off.

Other unsavory goings-on at Gobey's were hinted at in the press. "There are upper and rear rooms at Gobey's that could make strange and starting revelations if gifted with speech," The San Francisco Call winked.

In a July 1893 article titled "Pitfalls for Women. Scenes of Gilded Vice and Squalid Sin," Call correspondent Marie Evelyn recounted a tour of saloons with a male colleague identified only as "Mr. Y." At the time, the city's many drinking establishments were considered off-limits to proper women, yet female companions could enter by way of the "ladies entrances" usually hidden in plain sight. Once inside, patrons could retreat to private, locked booths where men might lead women down "the flowery paths of vice," as Evelyn put it. "Small wonder if a weak woman's moral sense grows confused when such perversions are allowed by law," she wrote.

Evelyn's descent into the intemperate underworld concluded at Gobey's: 

"What a change from those wretched bars," I could not help saying with a sigh of relief; "this is quite respectable by contrast."

"Yes?" replied Mr. Y in a tone of mild interrogation, "you make a distinction between gilded vice and squalid sin? Those rooms have not doors with bolts. If you look through the curtain you will see what nice women are passing in and out to rooms at the back that have doors."…

"These dens look rather like the staterooms of a first-class steamer," said Mr. Y. "Don't you think we should be about right in calling this a cabin passage to the lower regions, and the squalid saloons a steerage one?"

Ladies: San Francisco Call"Nice women are passing in and out to rooms at the back that have doors." San Francisco CallHer account is echoed in Clarence E. Edwords' Bohemian San Francisco: "Gobey ran one of those places which was not in good repute, consequently when ladies went there they were usually veiled and slipped in through an alley." At a police commission meeting in 1900, Gobey's lawyer "contended that the best people of the town, men with their families and all who wanted a little privacy, patronized these places." Perhaps he wasn't entirely exaggerating; as Edwords adds, "the enticement of Gobey's crab stew was too much for conventionality and his little private rooms were always full."

Gobey's was also credited as the source of the oyster loaf (sorry, New Orleans*)—a thick hunk of crusty bread hollowed out and stuffed with breaded and fried oysters. Noting that San Franciscans who had emigrated from the Atlantic seaboard had a "hankering for succulent and enormous bivalves," a 1926 article in The San Franciscan explained that "after a night with the boys, they felt the urge to placate the lady of their heart with a tid-bit and the Chinaman at Gobey's saloon thought up a oyster loaf." (The dish was also rumored to be an ideal "peacemaker" for delinquent husbands to offer to annoyed wives: "The deliciously flavored steam ascends like sweet incense until it reaches her rigid nostrils, and then her stern features relax into something like a smile.")

The ladies' entrance to Gobey's likely opened onto Mary Lane, one of several alleys behind the Rose Building. One of them, the serendipitously named Clara Lane, may have been an even more colorful (and tragic) site than the saloon:

May 1867: The owner of a building on the corner of Sutter and Clara Lane writes the Daily Alta California to clarify that an illegal liquor still had not been found on his property, but in an adjacent building. He insisted that the alleged distiller claimed to be setting up a "vinegar factory." 

August 1884: Eleven-year-old Philomena Fry falls into Clara Lane while trying to pick some flowers from a window box three stories above.

April 1886: An item in The Call reports that "Wallace McCreary, an old-time opera singer, allowed his feelings to overcome him about 8 o'clock yesterday morning and took a tumble from a second-story window in the rear of the building occupied by Sam Sample's saloon, on Kearney street. McCreary landed on the stone pavement of Clara lane and sustained a severe contusion on the back of his bead, but nothing of a serious nature."

January 1887: A man who absconded with another's five-gallon can of gasoline is apprehended in the alley and positively identified as "Smoothy, the cocaine fiend." The same month, one Clara Mason of Clara Lane is admitted to the hospital for "an overdose of strychnine self-administered."

Clara Lane: David Rumsey Map Collection Cocaine fiends, falling bodies, and stabbings: Just another day in Clara Lane David Rumsey Map Collection

April 1887: Sixteen-year-old George Murphy survives being shot at after a quarrel with some men leaving the Fern Leaf Saloon. The suspect makes his escape down Clara Lane to Sutter Street.

November 1887: The Call briefly recounts the tale of Celso Garcia, a bootblack who said he'd been cut on the nose when "Arvilo Venartiar, a tamale peddler, had entered his house at 6 Clara lane and started in to carve him and his wife Maria up because Venartiar's attentions to Garcia's daughter did not meet the parental approbation."

January 1888: Carrie (Clara?) Mason of Clara Lane is reported to have been hospitalized "suffering from a dose of chloral hydrate." The Call notes, "This is the second time within a few months that the woman has attempted to solve the problem of how much chloral it would take to kill her. Abusive treatment on the part of her husband is stated to be the cause of her attempted suicide."

September 1904: A newspaperman is attacked while walking down Clara Lane late at night. The Call reports: "He was cut over the left eye, across the bridge of the nose and over the right ear. The wounds were apparently inflicted by a dull instrument."

The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed 490 square blocks of the city, including this stretch of Sutter Street. Gobey's reopened nearby, but was said to be a shadow of its former self. Clara Lane became Claude Lane; Mary Lane is now Mark Lane. Smoothy the coke fiend and trigger-happy football fans have been replaced by 9-to-5ers and shivering tourists. But the MoJo building still has a rear door, possibly in the same spot where the ladies' entrance to Gobey's once welcomed anyone looking for a drink, a date, or a bite of oyster loaf.

* The New Orleans Times-Picayune's Brett Anderson convincingly counters this crusty claim: "There is proof New Orleanians were eating sandwiches called oyster loaves and peacemakers before Gobey’s ever hosted its first scene of gilded vice and squalid sin.

Corn on MSNBC: How Obama Outlasted the Tea Party

Wed Apr. 18, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

David Corn joined host Al Sharpton on MSNBC's PoliticsNation to discuss how President Obama weathered the storm of the tea party by allowing the movement's own extremism to discredit itself.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. Follow him on Twitter.

Four Things Grosser Than Pink Slime

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
One way that nasty bacterial strains from factory farms make it to "the community"--i.e., you.

The specter of "pink slime"—pureed, defatted, and ammonia-laced slaughterhouse scraps—has caused quite the uproar over the past six weeks. (The latest: Propublica has a great explainer on pink slime and other filler products.) The current fixation on pink slime may well lead to the demise of the product; already, supermarket and fast-food chains and school cafeterias are opting to stop adding the stuff into their burger mixes. The company's maker, Beef Products International, has had to temporarily shut down three of its four plants in response to collapsing demand, which doesn't augur well for the company's long-term health.

But I'm wondering if focusing on the ew-gross aspects of "lean, finely textured beef" (as the industry calls it) doesn't miss the bigger picture, which is that the meat industry's very business model is deeply gross. Even if pink slime is purged from the face of the earth, the system that produces our meat and related products (eggs, milk) won't be fundamentally changed. A while back, I identified something about meat production that's "even grosser than pink slime"—proposed new rules that would privatize inspection at poultry slaughterhouses while dramatically speeding up kill lines. Here are four more.