Science and the media: 28 May - 3 June
June 14, 2011Published: June 14, 2011
- The Wall Street Journal's early and strongly negative reaction to plans to close German nuclear plants
- Major newspapers' trumpeting of new concerns about cellphones and human health
- Pakistani nuclear physicist and political commentator Pervez Hoodbhoy's latest commentary
- Continuation of the evolution-creationism wars in Louisiana
- A further escalation in climate skeptics' campaign to reclassify public university researchers' e-mail as routine public property
German Chancellor Angela Merkel studied physics at the University of Leipzig. Later, at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin-Adlershof, she earned a doctorate with a thesis on quantum chemistry. Now she's planning, as an editorial on the Wall Street Journal's "International Editions" online page puts it, "to decommission every nuclear power plant in the country 14 years ahead of schedule."
The editorial carries the headline "Germany's Nuclear Panic" and calls the decision "a political, economic and environmental blunder." It asks, "So a huge earthquake and a massive tsunami devastate northern Japan in March, and the effects are felt two months later in . . . Germany?" It notes that nuclear plants provide about a quarter of Germany's electricity and predicts that the closures will not only "raise energy costs as consumers subsidize 'renewable' replacements" but will "endanger some 30,000 jobs." It recites common criticisms of hopes for large-scale solar and wind power.
"The irony here," the editorial declares in closing, "is that Ms. Merkel, a physicist by training, is one of the few politicians of any stature who could credibly explain that all energy sources have risks and costs, while modern nuclear plants are far safer than those at Fukushima."
Prediction: This Friday's weekly "What's New" e-mail commentary by Bob Park, University of Maryland physicist, will address Park's longstanding bugaboo: Can cellphones cause cancer? Headlines in major newspapers report that a World Health Organization panel has questioned the kind of deep skepticism that Park regularly expresses.
Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have flagged the story with prominent front-page teasers pointing to articles inside each paper's main section. The Washington Post front page carries the story itself, under the headline "Cellphones are possible cancer risk, WHO says; Panel urges further research; industry group dismisses report."
The Post explains:
Cellphones are "possibly carcinogenic" to humans, according to [a] panel organized by the World Health Organization. But an exhaustive, eight-day review of hundreds of studies concluded that the existing evidence is insufficient to know for sure. And because cellphones are so popular, further research is urgently needed, the experts said.
"Possibly carcinogenic" is the WHO's third-highest rating, falling below "carcinogenic" and "probably carcinogenic" but above "not classifiable" and "probably not carcinogenic." Other substances that the group has categorized as "possibly carcinogenic" include talcum powder, which has been possibly linked to ovarian cancer, and low-frequency magnetic fields, which are emitted by power lines and appliances and have been possibly associated with childhood leukemia.
Nonetheless, the cellphone classification marks a departure for the WHO, which previously said there were no risks from exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields emitted by the devices.
The Post later adds that the "classification was based primarily on two large epidemiologic studies that found an association between cellphone use and brain cancer, particularly a malignant form called glioma and a benign tumor known as acoustic neuroma"—and that the "panel, which included 31 scientists from 14 countries, did not quantify the possible risk; nor did it estimate how much cellphone use might be safe or risky, make any recommendations about whether cellphones should be regulated more strictly, or recommend what steps consumers should take."
The article also adds a thought about a precaution that Park, as it happens, mocked in "What's New" just last week: "But one panel member said users might consider common-sense precautions such as ... using a headset to keep the phone farther from the head to minimize exposure."
On 28 May 1998, Pakistan detonated five nuclear devices and became a nuclear power. On 28 May 2011, Pakistan's Express Tribune's front page carried "Anniversary: What if Pakistan did not have the bomb?", a commentary by Pervez Hoodbhoy—the polymath nuclear physicist and political commentator who has been discussed frequently in these media reports, most recently in early May.
This time Hoodbhoy begins by quoting A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear proliferator: "If we had had nuclear capability before 1971, we would not have lost half of our country—present-day Bangladesh—after disgraceful defeat." This sets up as counterpoint Hoodbhoy's theme: "Given that 30,000 nuclear weapons failed to save the Soviet Union from decay, defeat and collapse, could the Bomb really have saved Pakistan in 1971? Can it do so now?"
Hoodbhoy reviews the turmoil of those years, leading him to more questions about Khan's view:
Would the good doctor have dropped the bomb on the raging pro-independence mobs in Dhaka? Or used it to incinerate Calcutta and Delhi, and have the favour duly returned to Lahore and Karachi? Or should we have threatened India with nuclear attack to keep it out of the war so that we could endlessly kill East Pakistanis? Even without the bomb, estimated civilian deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands if not a million. How many more East Pakistanis would he have liked to see killed for keeping Pakistan together?
Later Hoodbhoy asks, "What can the bomb do for Pakistan now?" He answers:
Without it, will India swallow up Pakistan and undo partition? Such thought is pure fantasy. First, India has a rapidly growing economy and is struggling to control its population of 1.2 billion, of which almost half are desperately poor. It has no reason to want an additional 180 million people to feed and educate. Second, even if an aggressive and expansionist India wanted, asymmetrical warfare would make territorial conquest and occupation impossible. The difficulties faced by America in Iraq and Afghanistan, or of India in Kashmir, make this clear.
The bomb did deter India from launching punitive attacks at least thrice since the 1998 tests. There were angry demands within India for attacking the camps of Pakistan-based militant groups after Pakistan's incursion in Kargil during 1999, the December 13 attack on the Indian parliament the same year (initially claimed by Jaish-e-Muhammad), and the Mumbai attack in 2008 by Lashkar-e-Taiba. However, this problem only exists because the bomb has been used to protect these militant groups. The nuclear umbrella explains why Pakistan is such a powerful magnet for all on this planet who wage war in the name of Islam: Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, Uighurs, and various westerners. It was, as we now know, the last lair of Osama bin Laden as well.
Ultimately Hoodbhoy comes to, and concludes with, the counsel that he regularly offers. Instead of nuclear bombs, he urges, in Pakistan "we need to protect ourselves by building a sustainable and active democracy, an economy for peace rather than war, a federation in which provincial grievances can be effectively resolved, elimination of the feudal order and creating a tolerant society that respects the rule of law."
In 2008, the Louisiana Science Education Act became state law overwhelmingly, despite vocal opposition. This year, in what amounts to a beau geste on behalf of the separation of science and religion, a repeal effort has failed resoundingly.
Separationists, however, persist. They include, and enjoy encouragement from, scientists. Alan I. Leshner, for example—chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—wrote in April to the sponsor of the doomed repeal measure, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson. In part he told her:
The LSEA features language that could be used for the insertion of religious or unscientific views into science classrooms. The bill disingenuously implies that particular theories, including evolution, are controversial among scientists. In reality, the science of evolution underpins all of biology. The principles behind it have been tested and retested for many decades, and it is supported by tens of thousands of scientific studies. Evolution informs scientific research in a broad range of fields such as agriculture and medicine, work that has important impact on our everyday lives.
Last week, in the article "Senators reject repeal of 2008 Science Education Act," the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported the failure of repeal, saying in part:
Defenders of the 2008 science education law call it a matter of academic freedom that is intended only to help science teachers encourage critical thinking and allow them to use instructional materials that supplement what textbooks say about topics such as evolution and global warming. The law originally was adopted at the urging of the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative Christian group with considerable influence over legislative affairs.
[State Sen.] Peterson pushed the repeal, she said, to defend the integrity of Louisiana public education and end "an embarrassment" for the state. A Roman Catholic, Peterson quoted from the Nicene Creed, which calls God the "creator of all things, seen and unseen." She called it a statement of faith, not a conclusion of scientific discovery.
She wielded endorsements of her repeal effort from 43 Nobel laureates, faculty members and administrators from Louisiana State University and LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and a host of state and national organizations of scientists and educators. Dr. Wade Warren, a biology professor at Louisiana College, countered with a letter signed by 15 scientists who support the law as it is.
This week, Times-Picayune readers heard from columnist James Gill, whose scathing piece begins: "There are plenty of straight-talking Christians in foxholes too. But you'd have a hard time finding one in the Louisiana Legislature. Legislators prefer to be liars for Jesus."
Gill notes that in 2008, the bill passed the Senate unanimously and got only three "no" votes in the House. Such "numbers are eloquent," he declares, for "a rational bill would never have received that kind of support." He condemns what he calls the "wittily named Science Education Act" as "an exercise in intellectual dishonesty." He disdains "the fiction that an act inspired by the Family Forum had nothing to do with the promotion of religion, its sole raison d'etre." And he explains what he thinks is really going on:
The act does indeed say that it should not be construed "to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion."
But that was written with a nod and a wink, and it just goes to show how much craftier the obscurantists have become. First they tried to foist anti-Darwinism on public schools in the name of creationism, but the courts put the kibosh on that. Reborn as intelligent design, their notions once again failed to survive constitutional challenge.
Their latest dodge is to cast themselves as champions of academic freedom.
At the end, Gill laments, "Perhaps the courts will intervene and consign faith and science to their proper spheres, but there is no sign that will happen any time soon." He adds, "Certainly, the act will never be repealed, unless legislators finally develop the ability to walk upright and speak the truth."
Never? What's surely certain is that separationists will persist. Evidence on the Web includes the sites Louisiana Coalition for Science and Repealing the Louisiana Science Education Act, and the "Support for Louisiana repeal effort" page at the site of the National Center for Science Education.
Back in April, I began one of these media reports this way:
The e-mail of public university scholars and scientists—to what extent, if any, should law and society privilege it, grant it privacy, and sequester it from the rules for publicly owned information? In a recent conversation at the American Center for Physics, I asserted that this is one of those questions best left unasked.
It's being asked.
That was then. Now it's being asked even louder.
In the special "Taking Exception" box at the bottom of the editorial column on the left-hand side of the 3 June Washington Post opinion spread, Christopher Horner, director of litigation at the American Tradition Institute's Environmental Law Center, offers a letter headlined "A hypocritical response to U-Va. records request."
He's responding to the Post's 30 May editorial "Harassing climate-change researchers," which criticized Horner and his organization for asking the University of Virginia for copies of thousands of e-mail messages and other documents by Michael E. Mann, the prominent climate researcher who left the university several years ago.
Even though Mann "wasn't an agent of the commonwealth in any practical sense," the editorial said, "the university hasn't been able to dismiss ATI's requests, since Mr. Mann's e-mails are public records in a technical sense." Horner's organization's "motives are clear enough," the editorial continued. "The group's Web site boasts about its challenges to environmental regulations across the country" and the group "declares that Mr. Mann's U-Va. e-mails contain material similar to that which inspired the trumped-up 'Climategate' scandal, in which warming skeptics misrepresented lines from e-mails stored at a British climate science center."
The editorial concluded:
Going after Mr. Mann only discourages the sort of scientific inquiry that, over time, sorts out fact from speculation, good science from bad. Academics must feel comfortable sharing research, disagreeing with colleagues and proposing conclusions—not all of which will be correct—without fear that those who dislike their findings will conduct invasive fishing expeditions in search of a pretext to discredit them. That give-and-take should be unhindered by how popular a professor's ideas are or whose ideological convictions might be hurt.
Teresa A. Sullivan, U-Va.'s president, said that the university will use "all available exemptions" from the state's public records law to shield Mr. Mann. And a university spokesperson said that U-Va. anticipates that most of the documents at issue will be exempt under a statute that "excludes from disclosure unpublished proprietary information produced or collected by faculty in the conduct of, or as a result of, study or research on scientific or scholarly issues." The university is right to make full use of such exemptions.
Horner's response charges that the editors "failed to articulate an argument grounded in the statute for treating one class of records, or people, differently from the rest of those expressly covered by the act's terms as a condition of taxpayer-funded employment" and that they also failed "to acknowledge a critical point," namely, that it's "customary among commonwealth universities to provide such records of academics, even the specific class of records we are seeking." For example, Horner writes,
U-Va. began providing to Greenpeace records of former research professor Patrick Michaels, before Greenpeace suspended its request. And just this year George Mason University released correspondence of professor Edward Wegman regarding an already published paper, just as we seek former U-Va. assistant professor Michael Mann's correspondence relating to his publications.
"For the uninitiated," Horner continues, "Mr. Michaels is a 'skeptic'" and "Mr. Wegman was involved in exposing Mr. Mann's statistical methods and problems with climate science's version of peer-review. So their records are somehow different." Then comes Horner's closing zinger:
For The Post to acknowledge this disparate treatment would be to acknowledge that the law is on our side, that the exception sought here is unique to a favored individual, and that this expression of outrage in response to our request is therefore selective and hypocritical.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. His reports to AIP are collected each Friday for "Science and the media." He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.