Bringing Science to Journalism

Chris Mooney has written an excellent WaPo column calling on journalists to agree to follow a more empirical process, one which is "constrained by standards of evidence, rigor and reproducibility that are similar to the canons of modern science itself." He makes his case by calling out George Will, who is all too happy to continue misleading his global-warming-denying audience.

Will also wrote that "according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade." The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is one of many respected scientific institutions that support the consensus [.pdf] that humans are driving global warming... Climate scientists, knowing that any single year may trend warmer or cooler for a variety of reasons—1998, for instance, featured an extremely strong El Niño—study globally averaged temperatures over time. To them, it's far more relevant that out of the 10 warmest years on record, at least seven [.pdf] have occurred in the 2000s—again, according to the WMO.

Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists—following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It's also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be—now more than ever.

Well said. This echoes what Mooney wrote for Mother Jones's September/October 2008 issue. After working for over a year as a fact-checker for MoJo, I must say that I couldn't agree more.

The Importance of Pakistan

David Kilcullen, an Aussie military man who is (was?) a top adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, sat down with the Washington Post to talk about the war on terror. He emphasized, above all else, Pakistan.

What is the real central front in the war on terror?

Pakistan. Hands down. No doubt.

Why?

Pakistan is 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, an army bigger than the U.S. Army, and al-Qaeda headquarters sitting right there in the two-thirds of the country that the government doesn't control. The Pakistani military and police and intelligence service don't follow the civilian government; they are essentially a rogue state within a state. We're now reaching the point where within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state, also because of the global financial crisis, which just exacerbates all these problems. . . . The collapse of Pakistan, al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover -- that would dwarf everything we've seen in the war on terror today.

You can see the whole thing here. Kilcullen, who is promoting a new book, also spoke with Wired's Danger Room.

Price Discovery

Felix Salmon writes:

How Treasury's Bank Bailout Could Make Things Worse

....The minute the Treasury plan is put into action, we'll have a lot of public price discovery for the banks' bad assets. And if the prices don't clear — if the minimum price the banks will accept is higher than the maximum price that the public-private partnerships are willing to pay — then no one will any longer be able to perpetuate the fiction that America's banks are solvent.

....The big hope of the Treasury plan is that the private sector will be willing to pay a higher price for leveraged assets than it would for unleveraged assets....During boom years, that was a wager that many investors were willing to take. But now? I'm not sure. Chalk it up as yet another thing-which-has-to-go-right in order for this scheme to work. There are far too many of those for comfort.

Um, how is this a bad thing?  Isn't a whole bunch of very public price discovery exactly what we want?  Then we get to find out for sure whether banks are solvent, as they claim, or irredeemably underwater, as a lot of us suspect.  Right now they can lie about their books and no one can really prove them right or wrong.  After these auctions, though, smoke and mirrors will be a lot harder.

I don't have any more insight than anyone else about whether this is a deliberate part of Geithner's plan.  Oddly enough, though, his tongue-tied interviews about it make me suspect that it might be.  Geithner might not be the most silver-tongued spokesman in the Obama orbit, but he's not a doofus.  If he's having trouble explaining the plan in public, one reason might be that he's unable to fess up to the central pillar of the whole thing: forcing banks to put up or shut up.

Somebody is wrong about all this stuff, after all.  Either the critics are wrong, and banks are actually perfectly solvent, or else the banks are wrong, and all their memos about how they're practically sagging under the weight of all their Tier 1 capital are just a bunch of hooey.  Geithner's plan goes at least part of the way to figuring this out.

Facebook For Refugees

Facebook helped you reconnect with your ex, check up on your favorite band, and join Chesley Sullenberger's fan club, and sure, those things are fun. But what about helping the global diaspora of displaced persons figure out where their former neighbors are and what's become of them? A bit more important, you might say, and the goal of a new social networking site created by German NGO Refugees United. Der Spiegel reports that the site is already available in 23 languages, with developers currently putting together a Bhutanese version to serve the surging number of refugees arriving in the United States from Nepal; Washington recently agreed to take 60,000 of them.

From Der Spiegel:
The idea is actually a very simple one. Each year, millions of people are uprooted by war, famine or natural disaster. Escaping catastrophe, though, is not always an orderly process. Families can easily get separated and, once the displaced cross borders, often get sent to widely dispersed destinations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are over 1.5 million minors who have lost contact with their parents...
The Red Cross system, though -- as efficient as it may be -- requires refugees to apply for help from a third party. Requests are sent first to Red Cross headquarters in Geneva from where they are then sent to personnel working in the conflict zone in question. Should Refugees United, as the Mikkelsens call their organization, attract enough members, it could provide the displaced with a new way to search -- one that they control themselves.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from tracyhunter.

The Byrd Rule

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have never roused myself to understand the intricacies of the budget reconciliation process and the Byrd rule. The reconciliation process is basically designed to eliminate Senate filibusters on budget resolutions, but it's the Byrd rule that specifies what counts as a budget issue and what doesn't. But who decides what the Byrd rule itself says?  Ezra Klein:

The Byrd rule allows senators to challenge the acceptability of any provision (undefined) of a reconciliation bill based on whether or not its effect on government revenues is "merely incidental" (undefined). Thus, if you enter reconciliation with a health-reform bill, it's not clear what's left after each and every provision — however that is defined — is challenged and a certain number of them are deleted altogether: the tax portions, certainly. And the government subsidies. But is regulating insurers "merely incidental" to government revenues? How about reforming hospital delivery systems? How about incentives for preventive treatment? Or the construction of a public plan? An individual mandate?

It's hard to say. The ultimate decision is left up to the Senate parliamentarian, whose rulings are unpredictable. Under George W. Bush, Republicans managed to ram tax cuts, oil drilling, trade authority, and much else through reconciliation. But they were as often disappointed: The GOP leaders fired two successive Senate parliamentarians whose Byrd rule rulings angered them.

Ah, I see. The Senate parliamentarian will decide whether we get healthcare reform this year. That's comforting to know. Perhaps Ezra's next task should be an in-depth profile of Alan Frumin, apparently the people's representative for all things healthcare related.

Housing News

Looking for some good news?  Well, there isn't much, so this will have to do:

The National Association of Realtors said Monday that sales of existing homes increased 5.1 percent to an annual rate of 4.72 million last month, from 4.49 million units in January. It was the largest sales jump since July 2003.

Sales had been expected to fall to an annual pace of 4.45 million units, according to Thomson Reuters.

....February’s median sales price was up slightly from January, which recorded the lowest median price since September 2002. Prices are down about 28 percent from their peak in July 2006.

It's not clear what caused this, since home prices are almost certainly going to keep falling another 20% or so.  In fact, this might even be bad news in a way, since the faster we hit bottom and get back to trend growth, the faster we're likely to see the end of the recession.  But really, these days, who knows?

Exposing Torture

This is good news:

Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify — and publicly release — three internal memos that will lay out, for the first time, details of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against "high value" Qaeda detainees....According to the administration official, ex-CIA director Michael Hayden was "furious" about the prospect of disclosure and tried to intervene directly with Obama officials. But the White House has sided with Holder.

Obama's record so far on the related issues of torture, civil liberties, detention, and surveillance has been mixed.  I hope that part of this is simply the caution of a new administration that doesn't want to make irreversible decisions before it's given them enough thought.  Releasing these memos is a small sign that perhaps once they've settled in they'll start unraveling the abuses of the Bush-era more thoroughly.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

More on the Dems' Quiet Oversight of Obama

On Thursday, Mother Jones broke the story that congressional Democrats had sent a private letter to the Obama administration asking key questions about what the president is doing to recover millions of White House emails that went missing during the Bush administration. The Democrats sent their letter a little over a week after the committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), wrote the administration asking about email issues, but the Dems did not make their letter public until today. What we had heard at the time, but could not confirm, was that one of the reasons the Democrats on the House oversight committee might have wanted to keep their letter private was that they had in fact copied-and-pasted their questions from Issa's letter. It turns out that the copy-and-paste story is true: Mother Jones has finally obtained a copy of the Democrats' letter (PDF of both letters). Two of the Democrats' four questions are word-for-word reproductions of questions Issa asked in the letter he sent to Gregory Craig, the White House counsel, a little over a week before. The other two questions in the Democrats' letter are very similar to ones in Issa's letter.

Republican staff members told the Washington Times on Saturday that they had asked the majority Democrats to sign onto Issa's letter. Jenny Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for committee Democrats, told the Times that emails from the Republicans asking the Democrats to sign on were "overlooked." But Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, claimed that the Dems were "clearly embarrassed... that they sent essentially the same letter to the White House that congressman Issa had already asked congressman Towns to sign on with him jointly."

Whatever the truth of the matter, Rosenberg promised the Times that the Dems will put their letter online today. They just did, but there's no explanation of why it took so long. The date on the Dems' letter is February 27.

Leverage

In Tim Geithner's Public-Private Investment Program for buying up toxic waste, just how much is public and how much is private?  The Washington Post seems to have the right answer:

With the government financial support, private investors could end up putting down only about 7 percent of the price of an asset, with the rest contributed by the government and by private lenders who receive government guarantees.

This appears to be based on TARP funds providing half the equity stake and the FDIC loaning money for the rest at leverage not to exceed 6:1.  But is this enough?

We'll see.  One of the key sources of tension in this plan is getting this number right.  If private investors have too low a stake, the opportunity for gaming the system is high.  They might overbid on assets, for example, because their stake is small enough that they can make more money on side bets than they can on the main investment.  Conversely, if the private investors are required to put up too much money, they won't participate.  Without some leverage, the projected returns just aren't good enough.

Overall, Geithner's plan provides leverage of about 12:1.  That strikes me as too high.  I'd rather see private investors having at least a 10-15% stake.  But I guess time will tell if Geithner got this component of the plan right.

Bat Mitzvahs for Seniors?

Ohio women from 90 to 97 are finally getting their bat mitzvahs. Apparently, the ritual for girls wasn't something with much Jewish cultural traction until the 50s and 60s when these women were already grown. Even a Southern Baptist apostate like myself knows how central the bar mitzvah is for Jewish males. Thankfully for them, these women have a rabbi who gives a damn. From the NYT:

A challenge, perhaps, but not all the women see it quite that way. "My first thought was boy, what a hoot!" said Millie Danziger Fromet, 90...A self-described "feminist all my life," Evelyn Bonder, 90, said she "always thought girls should have the chance to participate" in something that Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform congregations embraced in stages.
Ms. Agin said: "My daughter had a bat mitzvah. But it was on a Friday instead of a Saturday. It wasn't held inside the synagogue, and she wasn’t allowed to read from the Torah."
...Next came the speeches, which traditionally respond to the Torah passage read in synagogue that week. Rabbi Kutner had consulted old calendars to determine the week in which each woman would have spoken at age 12. He asked them to prepare messages based on the passages they would have addressed eight decades ago.
...Class members argued intensely over whether to limit each woman's speech to three minutes. The concern was not whether aging bladders could handle a ceremony that lasts an hour and a half, but whether relatives, some of whom are flying in from as far as Boston and California for the event, might be bored.

I've never been to either a bar or bat mitzvah, but I'd pay money to see this one.