Quick hits (part II)

Hmmm, this version is not so mega.  I apologize for the lack of numerical balance in this weekend’s quick hits.

1) There’s a new strongest material in the world (besting spider silk)– the microscopic teeth of bottom-dwelling sea snails.  Cool!

2) Oklahoma legislators– we don’t need no stinkin’ AP History!  And Steve Benen places it into a broader context of GOP assaults on public education.

3) Yes, unions go too far at times, but their decline has surely been a big part of our growth in inequality.  Nice column from Kristof.

“All the focus on labor’s flaws can distract us from the bigger picture,” Rosenfeld writes. “For generations now the labor movement has stood as the most prominent and effective voice for economic justice.”

I’m as appalled as anyone by silly work rules and $400,000 stagehands, or teachers’ unions shielding the incompetent. But unions also lobby for programs like universal prekindergarten that help create broad-based prosperity. They are pushing for a higher national minimum wage, even though that would directly benefit mostly nonunionized workers.

I’ve also changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.

Many Americans think unions drag down the economy over all, but scholars disagree. American auto unions are often mentioned, but Germany’s car workers have a strong union, and so do Toyota’s in Japan and Kia’s in South Korea.

4) Government by consent of the governed?  Maybe not so much in Greensboro, NC.

5) A really interesting take on how decriminalization of drugs can be a bad thing.  Really eye-opening.  Of course, if we could end this totally evil modern debtor’s prison thing we’ve got going, decriminalization wouldn’t’ be a bad thing.

6) Ideology and the closing of centers in the UNC system.  Yes, of course it’s political no matter how much the Board of Governors protests otherwise.  A response from Gene Nichol, one of the key figures in all this.

7) Love this collection of humorous flyers.

8) Given that Marilyn Vos Savant supposedly has the world’s highest IQ, it’s really kind of sad that she’s best known for solving logic problems in the Sunday Parade supplement (I know her as the person who married my dad’s first cousin’s ex-husband).  That said, the sexist vitriol she received on the Monty Hall problem is really kind of amazing.  Oh, and no matter what, I just cannot entirely wrap my head around this problem.

9) I remember reading something about this wrongful police shooting in Fairfax, VA (where I was born and raised) a while back, but the lack of news coverage is really pretty amazing.  On the bright side, it’s not just non-white guys who are victims of overzealous police who are then not held accountable.

10) Love Adam Gopnik on Republican candidate evasions on whether they believe in evolution.  It’s pretty short, you should read it all.  But since you won’t:

What the question means, and why it matters, is plain: Do you have the courage to embrace an inarguable and obvious truth when it might cost you something to do so? A politician who fails this test is not high-minded or neutral; he or she is just craven, and shouldn’t be trusted with power. This catechism’s purpose—perhaps unfair in its form, but essential in its signal—is to ask, Do you stand with reason and evidence sufficiently to anger people among your allies who don’t?

11) This Jamelle Bouie piece about the Republican attempts to appeal Obamacare and what it means has sat in my queue for its own post for too long. So here’s my favorite part:

The consequences of the proposal are straightforward: By ending Obamacare in its entirety and placing limits on Medicaid, it would eliminate insurance for millions of Americans and make it harder for middle- and working-class people to purchase coverage. And while it’s described as a plan to save money, the truth is that it accomplishes this by reducing care for the poor and raising costs on everyone else.

In other words, this isn’t a plan to achieve universal coverage. That’s simply not a Republican goal, and it’s part of the reason it has proven politically difficult to craft an alternative. We don’t think everyone should have health insurance just isn’t an appealing message.

Quick hits

1) Never thought about it this way, but makes so much sense.  All the vitamins we add to our processed food allow us to hide what low quality so much of the food is.

2) How your gut bacteria affects your immune system.  I’d like to thing mine is why I stay so healthy (and I attribute a healthy gut microbiome to lots of fruits and vegetables).

3) How the FDA is failing to keep us safe by hiding/ignoring evidence from bad drug trials.

4) Roy Moore is a self-aggrandizing, Constitution-ignoring jerk of a judge.  That said, Emily Bazelon explains how is gay marriage decision is not as crazy as it’s been made out to be.

5) The near-death of Monticello (I really need to take my kids there) and why we shouldn’t be leaving national treasures to the private marketplace.

6) This Atlantic cover story on ISIS is really thought-provoking.  Highly recommended reading.  On the shorter side, just maybe ISIS might collapse of it’s own failure to expand.

7) How often do people in various countries shower.  Too much, probably:

Cleanliness, it turns out, has been one dirty trick. One reason early-20th-century Americans ramped up their weekly baths to daily showers is that marketing companies capitalized on the insecurities of a new class of office drones working in close quarters. As Gizmodo wrote last week, to sell products like “toilet soap” and Listerine to Americans, “the advertising industry had to create pseudoscientific maladies like ‘bad breath’ and ‘body odor.'”

True.  That said, body odor is most definitely real and I prefer not to be around it.

8) Crows are even smarter than we thought (and reminds me of one of my all time favorite quotes on the matter).

9) I didn’t even watch the Super Bowl half-time show, but I think this Diary of the Left Shark is simply brilliant.  I laughed out loud several times while reading it.

10) When given the chance to weigh in, juries are much less punitive than many sentencing recommendations.  Maybe legislators need to re-think things.

11) What a wonderful tribute from one great journalist, TNC, to another, the passed away all too soon this week, David Carr.

12) At least Oliver Sacks has made it into his 80’s before contracting terminal cancer.  I think I was a teenager when I first read a Sacks book and I’ve read a ton.  I so love his infectious enthusiasm for understanding and sharing his understanding of the human brain.

13) On a happier note, this collection of best Robot Chicken clips is brilliant.  If you’ve never seen the one with Darth Vader calling the Emperor about the destruction of the Death Star, stop what you are doing and watch now.

14) Good for Walmart for raising it’s wages, but don’t pretend it’s anything other than good business in the current market:

The second reason for the raise is less specific to Walmart. The American economy’s recovery in the past few years has led to an increase in the number of jobs and a decrease in the unemployment rate—both of which mean that companies will have to start paying their employees more in order to get them to stick around.

From this perspective, Walmart’s decision is a selfish one: The company realized that it could hire workers at $7 an hour, but couldn’t hold on to them unless wages were bumped up. Aetna, Ikea, and The Gap have all come to similar conclusions. “I would expect to see many other small and large firms do the same,” Bloom says.

15) Eric Posner on just how wrong the decision to overturn Obama’s immigration action is.  It would be really, really surprising if this is not overturned at the appellate level.  Ruth Marcus takes it to the judge who ruled on the case.

16) My latest time-suck?  The oh-so-perfectly named, Trivia Crack.

17) One of my great embarrasssments of my acadmemic life is the paper I wrote on Andrew Johnson for my AP US History course.  I relied entirely too much on a source by an apologist for Johnson.  I think I got an A.  One of the reasons I really don’t like giving college credit for High School classes.  A short Slate video on why Johnson was a horrible president.

18) After the latest climbing tragedy Everest’s most dangerous route is now off limits.  Of all the things that I have read about, the Kumbu Ice Falls has totally stuck with me.  And my wife, too.  Thanks to Into Thin Air.  

19) Herbal supplements are barely regulated at all because Congress made that a policy choice.  Is it any wonder that they are full of false claims and false ingredients.

20) I’m so getting this for my next Iphone.

21) Nate Cohn on why Hillary really is a prohibitive favorite of historical proportions.

22) For a huge Seinfeld fan like me, this “What if Elaine Benes had Instagram” collection was super-entertaining.

Witch trials in modern-day America

Really?  No.  Metaphorically?  Absolutely.  Bite mark matching analysis has been thoroughly discredited by science.  It’s about as scientifically meaningful as astrology or analyzing entrails (haruspicy!!).  Yet the American “justice” system chooses to keep pretending otherwise. (There is still some appropriate use of forensic dentistry in identifying remains. but that is not what’s going on in courtrooms). It’s really quite shocking and appalling.  Radley Balko has a four-part series on the matter (first two parts are up so far).  Here’s some bits from part 1:

The field of forensics has reached an important moment. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a congressionally commissioned report on the state of forensic science in the courtroom. The report was highly critical of a wide range of forensic specialties, from fingerprints to hair and fiber analysis to blood spatter analysis. It found that many of the claims forensic analysts have been making in courtrooms for decades lacked any scientific foundation to back them up. Yet judges and juries have taken and continue to take those claims as foolproof science, often because the experts themselves frame them that way…

Bite mark analysis is also part of this group. But even within the pattern matching disciplines, the NAS report singled out bite mark matching for some especially harsh criticism. The report found “no evidence of an existing scientific basis for identifying an individual to the exclusion of all others.” The problem is that this is precisely what bite mark analysts do — and what they have been doing for decades. [emphasis mine]

Naturally, Balko catalogs innocent person after innocent person who spent decades locked away based solely on bite mark evidence.  Seriously.  And in a particularly egregious case that frames his story, the victim (that is the wrongly convicted) even had a separate expert questioning the state’s expert.  How does that possibly result in a conviction?

“I thought that was the very definition of reasonable doubt,” Richardson says. “The only physical evidence against me was Dr. Titunik’s testimony. But my own expert was just as qualified as he was and was saying the very opposite. And they were both using the same report. How could that not be reasonable doubt?”

And here’s the oh-so-depressing concluision to part 1:

Meanwhile, every time someone has challenged the science of bite mark matching in court since 2009, the court has ruled the other way. In short, the scientific community has declared that bite mark matching isn’t reliable and has no scientific foundation for its underlying premises, and that until and unless further testing indicates otherwise, it shouldn’t be used in the courtroom. And so far, the criminal justice system has said it doesn’t care. [emphasis mine] If bite mark matching is a bellwether issue for meaningful forensics reform, the prospects for meaningful reform appear to be dim.

Ugh.  Part 2 traces the history of its use in the courtroom.  And, great historical irony, it actually started with the Salem Witch Trials.  How damn appropriate.  In modern times, it all went horribly wrong when a California appeals court decided that it sounds like science, and damnit, that’s enough:

In Marx, the judges actually accepted that there was no scientific research to support bite mark matching. There is “no established science of identifying persons from bite marks” and “no evidence of systemic, orderly experimentation in the area,” the court wrote. But the judges’ reasoning then took a peculiar turn. Because there was no science to analyze, the court declined to hold a Frye hearing. Instead, the judges simply invented their own test for evidence that wasn’t scientific, but was nevertheless presented with a science-like veneer. They found that because the trial judge saw the bite mark evidence and concurred that it seemed sound, that was good enough for them. (Marx was convicted at a bench trial, not a jury trial.) The appeals court judges wrote that the evidence was admissible because to not admit it would be to “abandon common sense.”

Arrrgghhhh!!  These are appeals court judges.  Again, further evidence that you don’t have to be smart at all to be successful in the legal field.  Anyway, this Marx decision basically opened the floodgates and without the science ever being put to scrutiny, courts across the country have decided to accept it.  And when you get down to it, it is largely because the bite mark analysts are great in talking with high certainly using scientific jargon.  There’s a great example, from Balko, but I’ve already gone on long enough.  It’s long, but very, very much worth your time to read.

Anyway, in this time when there’s so much attention to anti-science views in the realm of vaccines and medicine, I would love some focus on the anti-science views and horrid scientific illiteracy in the justice system that literally ruins people’s lives.

Mandatory minimum intelligence for Senators?

Mandatory minimum sentences have generally proven to be a horrible idea, and widely recognized as so.  Unfortunately, not recognized by the one person with the most power to change this– Republican Senator Charles Grassley, the new chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Great editorial on the matter in the NYT:

For more than a year, members of Congress have been doing a lot of talkingabout the need to broadly reform harsh federal sentencing laws, which are a central factor in the explosion of the federal prison population. It’s an overdue conversation, and one of the few in which Democrats and Republicans find some agreement — but, so far, they have nothing to show for it…

But Mr. Grassley, for reasons that defy basic fairness and empirical data, [emphases mine] has remained an opponent of almost any reduction of those sentences. In aspeech from the Senate floor this month, he called the bills “lenient and, frankly, dangerous,” and he raised the specter of high-level drug traffickers spilling onto the streets.

Mr. Grassley is as mistaken as he is powerful. Mandatory minimums have, in fact, been used to punish many lower-level offenders who were not their intended targets. Meanwhile, the persistent fantasy that locking up more people leads to less crime continues to be debunked. States from California to New Yorkto Texas have reduced prison populations and crime rates at the same time. A report released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice found that since 2000 putting more people behind bars has had essentially no effect on the national crime rate.

Evidence?  We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence.  At least not for United States Senators.  Sad and pathetic.  And, of course, it is stupid policy that leads to needless suffering.  But hey, now Grassley doesn’t have to worry about drug dealers spilling out onto the streets to harass him.

Too many overdoses

A 39-year old neighbor of mine recently died from an opioid overdose, leaving behind three young daughters.  The thing is, similar overdoses happen throughout the United States literally dozens of times a day (seriously– 20,000 Americans a year die from overdoses of heroin or opioids) and we’re doing all the wrong things to solve the problem.

At this point, the evidence is pretty close to overwhelming that the most successful treatment follows a medical model of addiction and treats opioid addicts with the very effective drug Suboxone (basically eliminates the cravings, but doesn’t get you high itself).  Meanwhile, most American jurisdictions, especially those where these overdose deaths are a full-blown epidemic, ignore medical science and insist on 12-step programs.  In addition to the fact that these programs are all distinctly religious (not exactly separation of church and state for court-mandated– or often strongly coerced– treatment) this approach just doesn’t work well at all.  For one, it was designed for alcohol, which affects the brain very differently than opioids.  Additionally, all the best evidence suggests that the failure rate from these programs is awful.  But that’s what we keep doing.

Anyway, an amazing story on this ran recently in HuffPo.  It’s really, really long (I wonder how many pages this would be in the real world), but really really good.  Here’s some of my favorite parts from the first two chapters (out of 8):

A heroin addict entering a rehab facility presents as severe a case as a would-be suicide entering a psych ward. The addiction involves genetic predisposition, corrupted brain chemistry, entrenched environmental factors and any number of potential mental-health disorders — it requires urgent medical intervention. According to the medical establishment, medication coupled with counseling is the most effective form of treatment for opioid addiction. Standard treatment in the United States, however, emphasizes willpower over chemistry.

To enter the drug treatment system, such as it is, requires a leap of faith. The system operates largely unmoved by the findings of medical science. Peer-reviewed data and evidence-based practices do not govern how rehabilitation facilities work. There are very few reassuring medical degrees adorning their walls. Opiates, cocaine and alcohol each affect the brain in different ways, yet drug treatment facilities generally do not distinguish between the addictions. In their one-size-fits-all approach, heroin addicts are treated like any other addicts. And with roughly 90 percent of facilities grounded in the principle of abstinence, that means heroin addicts are systematically denied access to Suboxone and other synthetic opioids…

“The brain changes, and it doesn’t recover when you just stop the drug because the brain has been actually changed,” Kreek explained. “The brain may get OK with time in some persons. But it’s hard to find a person who has completely normal brain function after a long cycle of opiate addiction, not without specific medication treatment.”

An abstinence-only treatment that may have a higher success rate for alcoholics simply fails opiate addicts. “It’s time for everyone to wake up and accept that abstinence-based treatment only works in under 10 percent of opiate addicts,” Kreek said. “All proper prospective studies have shown that more than 90 percent of opiate addicts in abstinence-based treatment return to opiate abuse within one year.” In her ideal world, doctors would consult with patients and monitor progress to determine whether Suboxone, methadone or some other medical approach stood the best chance of success.

A 2012 study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University concluded that the U.S. treatment system is in need of a “significant overhaul” and questioned whether the country’s “low levels of care that addiction patients usually do receive constitutes a form of medical malpractice.”

Where buprenorphine has been adopted as part of public policy, it has dramatically lowered overdose death rates and improved heroin addicts’ chances of staying clean…

“If somebody has a heroin dependence and they did not have the possibility to be offered methadone or Suboxone, then I think it’s a fairly tall order to try and get any success,” said Dr. Bankole Johnson, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “There have been so many papers on this — the impact of methadone and Suboxone. It’s not even controversial. It’s just a fact that this is the best way to wean people off an opioid addiction. It’s the standard of care.”

But as the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse study pointed out, treatment as a whole hasn’t changed significantly. Dr. A. Thomas McLellan, the co-founder of the Treatment Research Institute, echoed that point. “Here’s the problem,” he said. Treatment methods were determined “before anybody really understood the a science of addiction. We started off with the wrong model.”…

There’s no single explanation for why addiction treatment is mired in a kind of scientific dark age, why addicts are denied the help that modern medicine can offer. Family doctors tend to see addicts as a nuisance or a liability and don’t want them crowding their waiting rooms. In American culture, self-help runs deep. Heroin addiction isn’t only a disease – it’s a crime. Addicts are lucky to get what they get.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.  Other modern countries rely on a medical model and harm reduction principles and have way more success.  Of course, the ultimately failure is the literally thousands and thousands of lives lost every year that would not be if we actually took a rational, science-based approach to opioid addiction.

If you are more of a listener, there was also a terrific Fresh Air interview with the author.  And, Alec MacGillis provides a nice two-page summary.

Not correlation means not causation (crime rate edition)

I enjoyed Kevin Drum’s take on this look at incarceration data from Vox:

Correlation is not causation. This has recently become something of an all-purpose comeback from people who want to sound smart without really understanding anything about a particular research result. Still, whether it’s overused or not, it’s a true statement. When two things move up and down together, it’s a hint that one of them might be causing the other, but it’s just a hint. Sometimes correlation implies causation and sometimes it doesn’t.

The inverse statement, however, is different: If there’s no correlation, then there’s no causation.With the rarest of exceptions, this is almost always true. Dara Lind provides an example of this as it relates to crime and mass incarceration.

The chart on the right shows the trend in various states at reducing incarceration. If reducing incarceration produced more crime, you’d expect at least some level of correlation. The dots would line up to look something like the red arrow, with lots of dots in the upper left quadrant.

Obviously we see nothing like that. In fact, we don’t appear to see any significant correlation at all. As Lind says, the scatterplot is just a scatter.

So, as a matter of good public policy we are quite clearly imprisoning too many people.  And incarcerating fewer would make us no less safer.  And save a ton of money.  Not to mention unnecessary human suffering.  So, we do we keep imprisoning so many people?  Because the American people want to.  Or so the correlation indicates cauasation argument presented by John Sides‘ suggests:

The graph is from recently published research by Cornell political scientistPeter Enns.  The measure of public support for being tough on crime comes from averaging together 33 different questions about crime policy that have been asked repeatedly during this period.

As the graph indicates, there is a strong correlation: the more the public wants to get tough on crime, the more the incarceration rate increases.  Enns shows that this correlation persists even after accounting for the crime rate and several other factors.  Enns also shows that public opinion appears to be driving the incarceration rate, and not vice versa.

Hmmm.  Next question, how do get the public to wise up (though, the public has clearly been moving in the right direction).

Want to ruin innocent lives with impunity?

How many jobs in the world are there where you have life and death power over innocent people and you can act with virtual impunity?  Well, there’s totalitarian dictator.  And, prosecutor in the US criminal justice system.  Okay, not quite complete impunity.  In very rare cases, prosecutors actually get punished for willfully and recklessly ruining the lives of innocent people.  But far more often than not, prosecutors are left with little more than a slightly sore wrist.

I’ve been grading papers from my Criminal Justice Policy class this weekend and their assignment was to write about any “miscarriage of justice” and suggest a policy proposal as a remedy.  My favorite so far was the over-reliance on unreliable drug-sniffing dogs, but most students have been writing about persons wrongfully convicted and then exonerated.  In a whole host of horrible cases, innocent men spent decades in jail, and very often based on proprietorial misconduct.  In one particularly egregious case, a prosecutor actually got serious jail time, but for the most part, there’s no real consequences for the prosecutor.  Is it any wonder then, that misconduct is rampant.

Very nice NYT editorial on the matter today and how the Supreme Court (and you know which justices in particular) have made it particularly difficult to actually hold wrong-doing prosecutors responsible:

When prosecutors cheat and lie repeatedly to win convictions, should their office be held accountable?

When a man spends years, or decades, in prison as a result of such prosecutorial misconduct, should he be compensated?

These are not trick questions.

And yet in a bizarre 2011 ruling, five justices of the Supreme Court managed to answer no to both, essentially closing off one of the only ways to hold prosecutors and their offices liable for wrongdoing…

Under a landmark Supreme Court decision, Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must disclose any material evidence that could exonerate a defendant. But because individual prosecutors are immune from being sued, the only way to hold the government accountable is if a court finds a systemic failure to train prosecutors properly on the Brady rule.

This would seem to be an easy bar to clear in New Orleans, where, as Mr. Truvia and Mr. Bright argue, Mr. Connick effectively had a policy of not turning over exculpatory evidence. He consistently neglected to provide any such training to his staff, even though the office’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence led to the exoneration of at least 12 people since 1990. A former assistant prosecutor, they say, described the office’s unwritten policy as “when in doubt, don’t give it up.”

Yet, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit threw out the lawsuit, saying the men had not proved that Mr. Connick’s office had any policy to withhold evidence or that he had failed to train his prosecutors. Nor, it said, had they proved there were any Brady violations before their convictions…

While New Orleans is among the worst, it’s not alone in violating defendants’ right to exculpatory evidence. Federal and state prosecutors nationwide often fail to honor the Brady rule and are virtually never punished for it. Because Brady violations are by their nature often hidden, one partial fix would be to require prosecutors to turn over their criminal case files to the defense. Ohio and North Carolina have adopted versions of this approach.

Well, hooray for North Carolina.  But even that’s only a partial fix.  Somehow, we seem to have a criminal justice system where no one is above the law.  Except prosecutors.  And that simply needs to change.

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