Friday, August 29, 2003

GMOs: The less information the better?

Heeding complaints by the United States, Canada and Argentina, the
Word Trade Organization has agreed to review European Union
restrictions on genetically modified organisms. The fallback position
for the EU is to install a comprehensive labeling system. From a
BBC story on WTO and GMOs:

EU farm ministers agreed last month to move from a blanket ban to
a stringent system of labelling when GM ingredients are used either
in foodstuffs for human consumption or in animal feed.

But the US says that will still discriminate against its farmers, given
the much more widespread use of GMOs in US agriculture. The vast
majority of US soy, for example, is GM.

The US insists that there is no scientific evidence proving damage to
either human health or the environment, and that the EU's "precautionary
principle" goes too far.

- - - - -

I first heard views of this kind advanced by supermarket managers in
the Northeast who opposed labeling milk produced with artificial bovine growth
hormone. From those peddling the latest applications of science, it's
fascinating to hear arguments that it's unwise giving people a simple
piece of truthful information -- "this product was made with...."

Evidently, ignorance is bliss. We shouldn't bother people with knowledge
we've decided they don't need.

Hey, Europeans, shut up and eat your GM soy flour!

Friday, August 22, 2003

Energy wake-up call? Quick! Hit the snooze button!

Julian Borger's article in The Guardian does a fine job of summarizing what
is known about the deeper sources of the power blackout, namely the
mania for privatization and deregulation in the Bush administration and elsewhere
in the U.S. It turns out that electrical transmission lines are not an attractive
source of profits for energy corporations. And since public spending on the
power grid has been explicitly rejected by our Republican Congress, investment
in the wires, towers and other apparatus has steadily declined in recent years.
Borger links the mentality of "let the market do it all" and cronny capitalism to
problems in Iraq and the war on terrorism as well.

from Borger:

"In the process of deregulating the industry, no one has found a way of making
investment in transmission lines pay. That is true politically, as well as financially.

Before the blackout, it was much easier to get elected on a programme of high
defence spending than to go to the voters on a record of generous expenditure
on transmission. Pylons and relay stations are not that sexy."


"The idea of public investment does not fit into the Bush-Cheney mission, with
the patriotic exception of defence. But even there, the cult of privatisation has
had a powerful and damaging influence.

The administration had to be coerced into nationalising airport security screening
services long after it was apparent that private companies were failing at the task.
Lip-service security is profitable. Real security is not.

The privatisation of defence contracting has also left soldiers in Iraq, supposedly
the ultimate heroes in the Bush pantheon, without proper supplies, living
quarters or even enough water in the desert heat. All these things were supposed
be provided by private companies, according to reams of contracts signed
before the war.

The trouble is that contractors fall over themselves to sign multi-million dollar
deals in peacetime but, when the shooting starts, their employees frequently
refuse to drive their trucks towards the action."

I wonder why British and European journalists seem to have a better
understanding of our problems than our American scribblers and talking
heads? Perhaps it has to do with how journalists in the different cultures
are chosen and who pays for their "services."

Friday, August 15, 2003

Your energy wake-up call

I was on the BBC Newshour this afternoon, talking about
America's excessive expectations about energy. Here are some
passing thoughts on the experience of the past couple of days.

As people in positions of authority try to track down the sources
of the great power blackout of August 14, 2003, it’s fascinating
to follow what’s being floated.

On the one hand we’re being told that nobody knows what caused
the power blackout affecting 50 million people. On the other hand
we’re assured that terrorism was definitely not a factor in the problem.
I take this to be a test of our ability to hold two contradictory ideas in
mind at the same time without having a nervous breakdown.

I’m also impressed by the fact that American politicians, including
Mayor Bloomberg, have identified the haywire as located somewhere
in Canada. (Oh, those evil Canadians – socialized medicine, legal marijuana,
gay marriage, power blackouts…where will it end?) Meanwhile, Canadian
officials are just as certain that the cause can be found in Ohio or another
inept power plant south of the border.

From public figures we now hear the stern message that the present
calamity is a “wake-up call.” But will this be yet another energy “wake-up call”
that nobody heeds after the dust has settled? There have been numerous
non-turn turning points of this kind since the middle 1960s – the great New York
blackout of 1965, the energy crisis of 1973-74, a similar energy crisis in the late
1970s, the great power blackout of 1977, the West Coast blackout of 1996,
and so forth. In the aftermath of energy shortages or system breakdowns
people often talk about the need to rethink our relationship to energy and
change our ways of living. A historian’s assessment of the lessons from one
such period concludes, “The massive blackout of 1965 had many ramifications.
It forced Americans to reconsider their dependence on electricity, and propelled
electrical engineers to reexamine the power grid system.” Energy companies and
planners took “preventative measures governing interconnections and reliability,
so that a similar failure would not happen again.” (Blackout History Project)
Yes, we fixed that problem, and just in time too!

In the late 1970s, President Carter declared the energy crisis “the moral
equivalent of war,” and asked all Americans to turn down the lights and turn down
the heat. This was not a popular position, however. People laughed at Jimmy Carter
for appearing on TV wearing a sweater and talking about our energy habits as a
moral issue. When Ronald Reagan was elected president he declared an "oil glut"
and once again the citizenry felt justified in the excessive use of electricity and gasoline.
God bless our "way of life."

Having lived through several episodes of this kind, I feel as if I’m in a hotel and the
phone rings: “Hello. This is your energy wake-up call. Now you can go back to sleep.”

Monday, August 11, 2003

Better late than never: debunking Powell’s U.N. dog and pony show

Last February, Colin Powell appeared before the U.N. Security Council
to give what he claimed was conclusive evidence of Iraq’s existing stock
of chemical and biological weapons as well as Saddam Hussein’s ongoing
project to develop nuclear bombs. At the time there was almost no effort
among U.S. journalists or politicians to scrutinize and evaluate specific
points in Powell’s dog and pony show. One had to turn to British and European
newspapers to find careful, knowledgeable analyses of the various claims in
Powell’s presentation, analyses that were fairly consistent in raising serious
doubts about the quality of the evidence Powell offered and the conclusions
he drew from it. But “patriotic” Americans were expected simply to trust
Mr. Powell and rally behind our Glorious Leader.

Well, now some in the American press, moving beyond the “16 words in the
State of the Union Address” syndrome, are finally getting around to examining
the February speech, finding its data and reasoning devoid of any real substance.
Here’s a story from the Associated Press that appeared recently in The Kansas City Star,
right in America’s heartland (is Heartland beginning to question Homeland?).
The piece goes through Powell’s major claims one-by-one, noting that none of them
have been confirmed by intensive post-war investigations.

Here’s one slice of the Associated Press analysis.

“Nerve agent production

Powell said that Iraq produced 4 tons of the nerve agent VX.

"A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes. Four tons," he said.

Powell did not note that most of that 4 tons was destroyed in the 1990s
under U.N. supervision. Before the invasion, the Iraqis made a "considerable effort"
to prove they had destroyed the rest, doing chemical analysis of the ground
where inspectors confirmed that VX had been dumped, the U.N. inspection
agency reported May 30.

Experts at Britain's International Institute of Strategic Studies said that any
pre-1991 VX most likely would have degraded anyway.

No VX has been reported found since the invasion.”


Good work, guys, but where were you when we needed this?

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Anti-Globalization Woodstock in Southern France

Here's a story from The Age, an Australian newspapger, one that's not
likely to make the major news outlets.

Of special note here is the presence of Manu Chao, a fascinating
French/Spanish/world singer with strong commitments and
a very lively, politically aware sense of humor.


100,000 protest globalisation

August 10, 2003 - 11:55AM

Some 100,000 people attended an "anti-globalisation Woodstock" in southern France overnight, with controversial eco-warrior Jose Bove leading the mass opposition to crucial World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in Mexico next month.
Earlier in the day the crowds were even bigger, up to 150,000 according to officials or 200,000 according to organisers at the start of the three-day rally.

Bove, fresh out of jail for uprooting genetically modified crops, and still serving time doing community service, spearheaded the rally, declaring that the month of September will "not be hot, it will burn".

He was referring to the WTO talks scheduled for next month in Cancun, Mexico.
Organisers from a coalition of anti-globalisation groups said their aim was to draw attention to the dangers to democracy posed by the WTO, trade liberalisation and multinational corporations.

The three-day Larzac 2003 festival included speeches, debates, street theatre and film shows, as well as a rock concert featuring French singer Manu Chao and British group Asian Dub Foundation.

For 30 years the stunning Larzac plateau has been an emblematic location for the French left, after veterans of the 1968 student movement successfully joined forces with local farmers to resist government attempts to turn it into an army shooting range. Bove himself works as a sheep farmer on the plateau.

In June 2000, around 50,000 activists camped near Millau for a rally that coincided with the trial of Bove and nine others for vandalising a McDonald's restaurant.
Bove eventually served six weeks in jail in 2002 for that offence, and in June this year returned to prison for uprooting genetically modified crops. He was freed last month on condition that he would participate in community service.

Manu Chao took the stage at the event dubbed the "anti-globalisation Woodstock" at 1am today (9am AEST) after several earlier acts interspersed with rallying speeches.

"We are sure that today is a great day for the social movement because despite our differences, we have found the common viewpoints," said farmers' confederation official Nicolas Duntze. "Farmers have learned to understand the youths in the suburbs and entertainment industry workers have understood the farmer," he added.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

Underming the objectivity of science policy

An important quest in post-Kuhnian philosophy and sociology
has been to cast doubt on standards of "objectivity" in scientific
knowledge. Scholars have been eager to show how a variety of social,
cultural and political elements influence what science claims
to know. As valuable as these insights certainly are, there has long
been a shadow lurking in the wings. What would happen if faith in
objectivity were replaced by a cynical sense of "socially constructed"
knowledge used to advance political agendas?

A recent study by the minority staff of the Government Reform
Committee charges that manipulating data to advance
preconceived, ideological ends has been a central project of the
Bush administration, not only in claims about weapons of mass
destruction and other whoppers used to justify war in Iraq, but
in a host of public policy issues as well.

Bush Misuses Science Data, Report Says

New York Times

ASHINGTON, Aug. 7 — The Bush administration persistently manipulates scientific data to serve its ideology and protect the interests of its political supporters, a report by the minority staff of the House Committee on Government Reform says.

The 40-page report, which was prepared for Representative Henry A. Waxman, the committee's ranking Democrat, accused the administration of compromising the scientific integrity of federal institutions that monitor food and medicine, conduct health research, control disease and protect the environment.

On many topics, including global warming and sex education, the administration "has manipulated the scientific process and distorted or suppressed scientific findings," the report said.

"The administration's political interference with science has led to misleading statements by the president, inaccurate responses to Congress, altered Web sites, suppressed agency reports, erroneous international communications and the gagging of scientists," the report added.

The full report on scientific flim-flam by Bush and his associates
can be found on Congressman Waxman's web page.

What can scholars in science and technology studies say about
this? "So what else is new? It was always thus." Many academics
have believed that vanquishing the ghost of objectivity would be
a welcome contribution to progressive causes. Is such confidence
still warranted?

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Progress on the March (continued) -- A summer camp for computer addicts

Sorry to have been away from the weblog for a while. I've been vacationing
in coastal Maine. Upon my return I ran across this story about a holiday
retreat of a different sort.

There are, of course, a great many things people grow pathologically
attached to in our addictive, consumer society. But reports of kids
getting hooked on computers are of special note because the
machines are still widely touted as being (in and of themselves) of tremedous
educational value. We still have not begun to weigh adequately the balance
of social cost and benefit in the heralded computer revolution.

Computer cure at camp for children
Ben Aris in Berlin
Wednesday August 6, 2003
The Guardian

Given half a chance Daniel, who is 13, will spend up to 12 hours a day staring
at a computer screen. He weighs 110kg (17st), has no friends at school, and
has been in constant trouble with his teachers. The problem faced by Daniel
(not his real name) is all too familiar in Germany, where a growing number of
children are addicted to playing computer games or surfing the internet.

In a desperate effort to reconnect him with real life his parents booked him into
the Boltenhagen summer camp, Europe's first school for teenage computer addicts,
where children are taught how to make friends, exercise and play games.
The camp, on the Baltic coast, is run by an evangelical charity, but the course is
funded by the German social security services and the children are from all denominations.

Ute Garnew, the camp director, said the demand for the 60 places had been so high
since it opened in February that parents, "really have to fight to get a place".

There is only one computer on the site and the children are allowed to use it for only
half an hour a day, and are not allowed to play games or surf the net.