Saturday, May 27, 2017

What Would Francis Think?

By Bob Ferris

A number of our men, indeed all who have not had the small pox are & soon will be under Inoculation.Alexander Scammell to Timothy Pickering, Jr. Valley Forge, 28 February 1778.  

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge. 

I do not know all that much about my ancestor Francis Chaffin, but I do know some.  I know, for instance, that he was born in Littleton, Massachusetts near the end of January in 1730.  And that he was married to Rebecca Cummings in nearby Acton on April 26, 1756.  Records indicate that he was a member of the Acton militia in the 1750s so he likely fought in the French and Indian War soon thereafter.

Statue representing Minuteman Captain Isaac Davis killed at Concord.
I know also that his father was an English emigre named Robert Chaffin and was little noted too, but that his maternal great-great grandfather was Dolor Davis who came to Boston in 1634.  I know too that Dolor and Francis were both carpenters and farmers as were many in these family lines.   Historic papers tell us also that Francis and his son, Francis Jr., along with more than a dozen Chaffin and Davis cousins including Isaac Davis (portrayed above) and Joseph Chaffin (see below) signed a document on September 29, 1774 enrolling them in the Acton Militia in preparation of anticipated troubles.

Joseph Chaffin Powder Horn 
Continental Army records indicate that father and son enlisted for three-year terms during the Revolution.   And I know that Francis died of smallpox three days after his forty-eighth birthday at a place called Valley Forge in Pennsylvania while serving as a Corporal.  He left a wife and seven mostly-grown children.

Although my siblings and I descend directly from more than a dozen soldiers who served in the American Revolution, Francis will be on my mind this Memorial Day because he was the one who died.  He gave his life for a dream of a country.  He died in a fight to free this land from rule by an entitled elite, the heavy-handedness of corporate influence and too much power resting in the hands of the Church.  That he died of smallpox rather than a musket ball, bayonet stab or saber cut matters little in the grand scheme.

There will be much running through my mind as I think about Francis this Memorial Day weekend and beyond.    But one thing seems to dominate my thoughts and that is a question.  If I were somehow magically able to sit right next to a freezing, but fevered Francis and show him what his sacrifice and that of others wrought would he be proud of what we had become?   Would he have thought that his sacrifice was justified?  What, indeed, would Francis think if he could see us now?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cherry Picking, Faulty Logic and the Analytical Skills of an Avocado

By Bob Ferris

I am involved in a discussion about media bias with someone on Facebook.  This person just offered up a Harvard study that contained the above graphic relating to media coverage of Trump's first 100 days in office.  His argument flowing from this is that Fox News is not biased because they "balance" negative coverage with positive commentary of Trump's performance.  It is balanced, don't you see?

This observer has embraced the FOX rhetoric rather than noticing that FOX is on average 34 points different than other news sources covering the exact same issues.   When presented with the above graphic which essentially tells the same story about the FOX bias, he rejects it and sticks with his his original mantra that began with the claim that the Washington Post is slanted and biased.  And he closed with this "You can believe what you believe-that is what they want you to do.  I know I am informed."  Just, wow.

But this is not just a sin of the FOX for lunch crowd.  Yesterday, I ran into the above.  Evidently, we are supposed to believe that teeth are the sole determinant of  diet.  Of course this sets aside our gut morphology,  collection of digestive enzymes and our evolutionary history (1,2).  Moreover, it ignores that chimpanzees, which are mostly vegetarian, have some pretty impressive canines (see below).   To be clear, for health and environmental reasons, we should not be eating as much meat as we do, but our dentition is not one of the compelling arguments.

The FOX and tooth arguments presented above are similar to those we see employed by those denying climate change (1,2,3).  Someone cherry-picks a specious proof and then runs with it (see below graphic).   This whole type of exercise seems to straddle the line between lie and faulty logic.  I suppose the latter softens the realty of the former to the perpetrators, but not materially to those observing.

From here
At the core of this is the idea of seeking truth in some manner.  My background is in science and for me that means looking at the broader setting and circumstance and trying to determine the answer based on critically examining information.  This is a far, far different exercise than having a belief and then searching for those bits and pieces that support your belief, while ignoring those that do not.

It is perfectly fine for people to say that they are conservative so they only visit conservative news sources.  It is fine too for vegans to proclaim that they eschew meat for environmental, ethical or health reasons.  And it is acceptable that those who fear their lives will be changed or they will suffer economically to oppose fossil fuel regulations.  What is not acceptable is using these deceptive methodologies as rationales, because that is not only disingenuous but it makes people who do legitimately look at these issues think that you have the analytical skills of an avocado.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

And Then There Were None

By Bob Ferris

I am probably spending far too much time digging deeply into the jungle of weeds surrounding this whole Trussia (Trump-Russia) situation.  There are many of us in this same boat, but that makes sense as this is really shaping up to be a situation that sinks us or acts to fix some of our substantial flaws.   Now I also have to admit that this whole affair has angered me and made me vindictive.  So when I was asked last night by a friend what I hoped would happen out of this, I answered: something long, drawn-out and bloody (figuratively not literally). 

Donald Trump and Michael Flynn

On my bike ride home home from an event, I started to think about this and for some weird reason an image came to mind.  That image was of the movie Ten Little Indians after the book by Agatha Christie which sadly had a much more racist title when first published in 1939 (1,2).  This image stuck with me down Lincoln, across 15th and past the Fairgrounds.  By the time I was pedaling along Amazon Creek turning onto Polk I was starting to think about which “ten” involved should go down and go down hard.
David Clarke (1)-Michael Cohen (1)-Betsy DeVos (1)-Boris Epshteyn (1)-Michael Flynn (1,2)-JD Gordon (1)-Franklin Graham (1)-Rudy Giuliani (1)-Jared Kushner (1)-Mitch McConnell (1)-Paul Manafort (1)-Robert Mercer (1)-Carter Page (1)-Mike Pence (1)-Erik Prince (1)-Paul Ryan (1)-Wilbur Ross (1)-Jeff Sessions (1)-Roger Stone (1)-Rex Tillerson (1)-Donald J. Trump (1)-Donald Trump Jr. (1,2)-Eric Trump (1)-Ivanka Trump (1)
This required thought.  What screens should be employed in terms of who should potentially be made an example of and who should be soundly slapped on the wrist and shown the door?  My sense is that we need to focus on those who have caused the most harm to our country and our system of government.  This is a huge menu (see above) at this point and we must be cognizant that we can only eat so much and that the meal needs to be balanced to do us the most good.    
Donald Trump and Paul Manafort

Russia and Trump loom in this, but we also now understand that current guidelines and mechanisms are no guarantee of acceptable behavior in the White House if the one in power has no internal governing function or moral compass (1,2,3,4,5).  We also have political donors who think that democracy should be a function of wealth (1,2).  We also have a number of media outlets that believe that public airwaves and bandwidth should be used to mold the public to their desired point of view rather than to inform and enrich society as a whole.  Corporations too have confused their tacit obligation to provide public benefit as an anointment empowering them to determine what is good for the country. And Evangelical Christians have tossed aside their moral outrage and sewn up their nostrils to play in this game because they feel it brings them one step closer to the Christian nation they desire.  

Eric Prince

When I look at the above list of players there are likely some that will meet their fates or be removed from the field via other actions.  Rex Tillerson (AKA Wayne Tracker), for instance, needs to face the music in the Exxon climate change lawsuits (1,2) and that seems an appropriate path.  Ryan and McConnell should pay a price for putting donors and party above our founding principles and the welfare of our country--voted out or deciding to spend more time with their families works.  Mike Pence needs to leave in a similar manner perhaps taking a clue from Jason Chaffetz.  

Carter Page

Ultimately when I pressed myself for "ten" I ended up thinking about them in two tiers.  The top tier individuals, if convicted of something, should experience jail time and fines.  There was nothing casual about their involvement and their actions were shady enough to warrant this treatment. The Second Tier deserve similar fates--probably not jail time for a variety of reasons, but certainly something beyond public shaming.  When the dust clears the Trump brand should be compromised and monies gained since inauguration should be remitted to the US Treasury.  I would love to see the whole Trump family forced to take classes in business ethics but I suspect that would be a lot like trying to write on water.  

Jeff Sessions

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III should be judged by his peers and asked about his involvement in the Comey's firing and the meaning term recusal (1). He should also be questioned about his failure to disclose his contact with the Russians before his former colleagues in the Senate (1).   Robert Mercer because of the Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and Breitbart connection bears some deep responsibility here for bringing this ugliness to our nation seat of government.  That is bad enough but it becomes much worse if there is also a Russian connection.  At the very least, that tree needs to be shaken thoroughly and then shaken again.  

Robert Mercer
The Evangelical Christian aspect of this is tricky.  Freedom of Religion is an incredibly important founding principle of this country which is expressly compromised by those seeking to make this a Christian Nation.  There is no simple solution here but something must be done such as remove IRS non-profit status or hold hearings on inappropriate religious electioneering.   We as a country need to send a clear message that we value religious freedom but will oppose those who would make us a Theocracy.

First Tier Candidates:

1. Michael Flynn
2. Paul Manafort
3. Roger Stone
4. Eric Prince
5. Carter Page

Second Tier Candidates:

6. Someone Named Trump (I am agnostic as to who.)
7. Jeff Sessions
8. Robert Mercer or Similar Super-donor
9. Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell Jr. 
10. ?

Those who have read down to here will notice that I left number 10 blank. That is an invitation for discussion.  I am interested in what others think about who should be on this list and who should not.  This must be an active discussion and it should be bi-partisan. Have at it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Horse Called Comey

By Bob Ferris

The philosophical-consistency police are having a field day on the Comey situation (see above).  Apparently it is inconceivable to them that Democrats who wanted to fire or punish FBI Director Comey for his meddling in the 2016 Election can now be angry that he was fired.  Rather than go into a tirade about Trump’s campaign promises versus his actions, let’s look at a hypothetical.

Let’s say you live in the country and your only transportation is a horse.  But your horse bites and often tries to brush you off on trees and rocks.  After a particularly bad smack into a tree, you curse the horse and decide the sell it.  You ask the neighbors who might have a horse to sell.  They are unaware of horses for sale and it is really not the right season to buy a new horse.  So the need comes up for you to ride into town and you climb upon your horse, because it is all you have and you need it then.  Your sentiments about your horse have not changed.

In the night someone steals your horse.  Your neighbor finds you jumping up and down yelling.  He asks you what is wrong and you tell him about your missing horse.  He counters that your response is illogical as you hated the horse and should be glad that it is gone.  You explain to him that he clearly misses the point as right now you have to get into town for an emergency.  James Comey is that horse.

Congress and the Dangerous Lesson of Paint Splatters

By Bob Ferris

There is a picture that my wife hates (see above).  She was setting out to do some touch-up painting on the exterior of our house on a warm and sunny day.  But when she opened the paint can the heat had pressurized it and she was sprayed in the face.  Now all should know that I share this photo again publicly at great risk to myself.  I do that willingly because I think the message that needs to be sent to Congress is much more important than the domestic tranquility that I might temporarily (hopefully) compromise.  So here goes.

Let me start by saying that anyone who is paying even the least bit of attention understands that the Congressional investigations of the Trump and/or Russia cluster of confusion to-date have been embarrassingly partisan and ineffective.  And I am not just talking about the near-term.  How come Congress did not do something about this while it was happening?  Why did so very few Members of Congress complain publicly about this obvious intrusion? Where were all Congress’ actions to protect our democracy from this obvious foreign attack?  And if Congress wants to say they did not see it happening or did not have the powers to prevent this, that would be truly, truly sad indeed—particularly since France seemed able to do it so well.

The American public can be patient if they feel the train in heading in the right direction.  But here is the thing…the Grand Juries (1,2,3,4).  Now there is another train (or perhaps trains) being driven by those in the Judiciary.  And here is where we come back to my wife’s picture.  That is what Congress will look like if the Judiciary comes into the station before those in Congress.  And deservedly so as those in Congress will seem either incompetent or complicit.  Not really any in-between space here.

Now I am in no way urging a rush to judgement or sloppy investigative work, but efficiencies can be achieved.  For instance, perhaps hearings on the issue of Russian election interference might not be the most appropriate place to delve into the constitutionality of an unrelated Executive Order—particularly when you end up getting your hat handed to you on camera.  But this is really the crux of it, isn’t it?  Those in Congress are crusading for their parties, rich folks or to make us a Christian nation and have forgotten that their job is to make sure that all their constituents regardless of race, color, gender, creed or lifestyle—citizens and guests—have a voice and are looked after in a reasonable manner.  That other stuff should be a hobby not the main focus.  Had that been the case a lot of what we are experiencing now would not be in play.  And I really cannot find those places in the US Constitution—that these elected officials swore to uphold—that enable or encourage rabid partisanship, pushing failed economic approaches that funnel wealth to a few (1,2,3) and a single religion approach.

I would also say that part of the job of Congress (and the Presidency) should include maintaining our country’s standing and dignity.  That dignity was certainly not enhanced by rooms full of candidates trying to out-god each other in a country that is becoming less and less religious (1).  Perhaps religion should remain a personal issue edging on private along with the relative size of one’s member and the mocking of those with disabilities.  Perhaps it is acceptable for the world to think we are governed by those lacking basic leadership skills or decency but there is no reason to concretely confirm it.

Elected officials can certainly claim that they turned a blind eye to this for their party or the greater good but those seem hollow justifications when one honestly looks at the colossal impacts of these transgressions on our nation and people.  But Members of Congress should think about how rational that approach remains now that the President has held a closed-door meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister where Russian press had access but those in America did not (1).  This on the day after Trump slapped Lady Justice soundly by firing the FBI Director investigating him over his connections to all things Russian.

So my advice to anyone in Congress at this point or running in 2018 would be to take one or two issues related to this and make some progress.  As of this morning there 50.5 million Google Search results for “Trump Russia Ties.” Likely one of these would be a viable option for some sort of inquiry.  This is important, because you will be asked sometime in the future what you did to prevent this or to solve it at a town hall meeting or on the campaign trail.  If you do not, you might end up looking like my lovely wife once did about election time.  Because the sun is clearly on your paint can and the pressure is building.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Climate Science as Gossip

Eugene Climate March

By Bob Ferris

Since the science and climate marches I have been thinking much about…well…science and climate. Hardly surprising particularly given the anti-science scrubbing the Trump Administration just gave the EPA websites (1,2).  This was done to some extent during the Bush II Administration but I suspect that was a mere foreshadowing of what we are about to see.  During the Bush II Era the idea was to change and modify science, I think we are about to see erasure and denial.

This is also on my mind because of the recent criticism of the New York Times for hiring an op-ed Bret Stephens writer from the denier camp.  This was met with outrage, as it should be.  But my sense is that the outrage should be cautionary and constructive rather than destructive.  We have far too few news sources in the ninety-percent range of accuracy to risk sinking another.  Ending a subscription, as many have threatened, strikes me as much like dealing with a starving child by withholding meals until they behave.

But let’s come back to the intersection between these two paragraphs, because in the Facebook comments of former New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin’s re-posting of a piece from Discover Magazine's blog is one by a notorious, lower echelon scientist denier.  This commenter directs people to a blog site posting with the headline “20 New Papers Affirm Modern Climate Is In Phase With Natural Variability” written by Kenneth Richard whose writing portfolio is broad to say the least.

But let’s look at this blog piece.  It leads off by citing a recent paper on arctic ice by Marie-Ève Gagné, John C. Fyfe, Nathan P. Gillett, Igor V. Polyakov, and Gregory M. Flato.  In that paper the authors talk about arctic ice increasing from the 1950 to 1975 before being driven down by climate change. Mr. Richard—who also writes about Justin Bieber and Vera Wang—sees this as evidence that climate change is natural as we have seen ice increase and decrease over the last sixty plus years so why are we concerned?  This view is echoed by the owner of the blog Pierre L. Gosselin because he has a sense that severe weather now is the same as severe weather in 1960s and 1970s.
“This would imply that the Arctic sea ice recession observed in recent decades is well within the range of natural variability, or within the range of what has occurred without human interference or high rates of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Kenneth Richard in No Trick Zone
Richard’s blog post has a nice graph and a “technical feel” but what do the actual scientists say?  In the article and their press release , the authors talk about how aerosols protected the arctic ice from melting faster due to warming. That seems a very different take than Mr. Richard’s quote above.  And there is nothing in this article that claims this phenomena is natural or an argument that we should just calm down about climate change.  But here we have a scientist with a PhD offering up a website that contains this in its header: "Fake and vulgar" climate news from Germany in English - by Pierre L. Gosselin.

So where am I going with all this?  My basic message is we should stick to science and trust no one on this topic until we have proven them and their material trustworthy.   Where to start? I tend to start with the person and their qualifications.  What degrees do they hold and from where?  From there I go to Google Scholar and see if they are publishing in this field and, if so, what are the impact numbers for the journals that publish their work (see impact factors).  I also look to see if other scientists value their work as a source which is indicated by how many times their piece was cited by others.  So if you run into an article from someone writing outside of their field in a journal with an impact rating of less than one that is only cited by publications from Libertarian think tanks your eyebrows should raise a little.

But much of what we see is in blogs and popular press—some good and some very bad.  Here the process of vetting is similar.  Check the qualifications of the author.  If it is anonymous or their qualifications are hard to establish reach for some grains of salt.  As a rule of thumb there should be an inverse relationship between how close someone stands to the center of the science being developed and how frequently they should cite the primary work of others to justify their statements and conclusions.  I do not know the exact negative correlation required but it is something to think about.

There are demerits in this system also.  It seems obvious to exercise caution towards the remarks of those working in or associated with the fossil fuel industry and then denying climate change or responsibility for the phenomenon.  Similar caution should be employed when looking at those driven by political beliefs though I was pleased to see recent comments by Jerry Taylor formerly of the Cato Institute (nee Charles Koch Foundation) whose brother James Taylor is leading the climate denial charge at the Heartland Institute (see here for discussion of Heartland’s recent guide to teachers).

I would also urge caution about old degrees and serial skeptics.  Science changes quickly and if someone published in the 1960s and 1970s, but is not working in the field currently the cloak of authority is likely somewhat moth-eaten and not providing as much warmth as it should.  Moreover, as the US produces 30,000 PhDs in science annually, there is little need to go to the way-back machine for experts.  There is also this need in science for skepticism which should not be confused with constant contrarianism.  For instance, if you argued against second-hand smoke, then ozone and now climate change your toes may not be as firmly rooted in science as you would like people to believe.  Not naming any names here, but…(see Merchants of Doubt).

Obviously I am looking at the extreme case here with someone who writes about style, trends and celebrities (i.e., gossip) also writing about climate and interpreting science.  But how is this really different than folks without degrees or lacking relevant training leading the charge on denial?  All of which circles back to the idea and necessity of going to the source material and evaluating it before absorbing it or spreading like so much manure across an already fertilized field.  We should do this with errant gossip and must with climate science as well.