Friday, June 25, 2010

Meech Anniversary

The other day was the twentieth anniversary of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in June 1990. This was supposed to be Brian Mulroney's signature contribution to the Constitution of Canada, allowing him, to some extent, to out-Trudeau Trudeau. He would have a deal that Quebec would officially agree to-they would come in from the cold, etc.--at minimal cost to the rest of the country, and separatism would be dead.

The longer the proposal was debated, the more unpopular it became. In the end all that was required was the votes of two small legislatures, Manitoba and Newfoundland/Labrador. In Manitoba one elected member prevented an affirmative vote; in Newfoundland it was tougher, with the Premier himself opposed. If Mulroney had imposed a shorter timeline for provincial agreement--say two years instead of three--he might have succeeded. But even beyond these small provinces, Meech was dead. Trudeau emerged from retirement to object to any increase of powers for the provinces in general, and any recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society."

There were many complaints that the public had not been consulted enough. Mulroney, one could say heroically, put another deal together, the "Charlottetown Accord," a bit more reminiscent of the original constitutional negotiations that culminated in the British North America Act. There were many more provisions, making this more of an unpredictable crap shoot for the constitution. There was a lot of consultation, and finally a referendum. Mulroney lost. He had demonstrated an uncanny ability to get agreement at the elite level--he eventually had virtually all the "names" with him, even the union leaders--while making himself and his government almost unbelievably unpopular.

Columnists used the occasion to restore some of the earlier debate. Andrew Cohen in the Globe: Mulroney was wrong, and the people were right: the failure of Meech did not destroy the country. On the other hand (Chantal Hébert, the Star), the Meech issue did a lot to create the Bloc Quebecois so that separatists are now at home in the House of Commons. Meech along with the deficit helped make the Reform Party the Official Opposition, put "the Albertans" or people in some ways on the right more in charge of "conservatives" in Canada, and make Stephen Harper Prime Minister. Mulroney's kind of people are less in charge than they were. Would it have been better if Mulroney had not even started this whole debate?

Once Chretien became Prime Minister, he quietly got the provinces to agree to a lot of the substance of Meech by way of the "social union"--which has received very little publicity. Chretien sleep-walked into yet another Quebec referendum, and when the federalists nearly lost, he threw money at Quebec. Enter (eventually) Stephen Harper.

I think Preston Manning deserves the credit for "Plan B"--insisting that the Parliament of Canada has a role in determining the meaning and aftermath of a Quebec referendum.

G20 in Toronto

I generally side with those who say this summit is too expensive, more or less a waste of money since there was a G20 not long ago, and another is scheduled soon, and the fortress downtown is a real drag, and does economic harm, for the city.

Hence Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe:

The whole G20 operates without a secretariat, whereas one could be useful in bringing some pre-summit order. Countries cannot constrain themselves, so the host country loses control of overall numbers and costs. Security trumps common sense. Tourism officials let boosterism cloud judgment. The leader of the host country sees domestic political glory.

And so we get a Toronto-style extravaganza, a downer never to be repeated.

Of course, there are alternate views.

But long after the fake lake has been drained and the $1-billion in summit expenses has been paid, business leaders say Canada will benefit from the weekend of disruption. As an example, about 250 of China’s top business leaders joined President Hu Jintao for a state visit Thursday in Ottawa.

When I read David Olive's piece in the Star, I thought he must be sucking up to Harper--bucking for a plum posting, maybe even Governor General.

The entire point of the G20 is finally to have rich and developing-world nations at the same table. Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city in the world: almost half our people are foreign-born and they speak more than 100 languages and dialects.

Heads of state will have no difficulty finding the appropriate ethnic-themed sports bar to cheer their teams, no matter who’s still standing in the World Cup contest this weekend.

No question, the city will be disrupted by this jamboree of world leaders and the demonstrators making their case for greater resolve in fighting everything from global poverty to global warming.

But for the likes Donald Coxe, the market sage who made his career in Toronto and later Chicago, this is a time of celebration. “Canada looks so good in comparison,” writes Coxe, strategy adviser at BMO Capital Markets, whose latest Basic Points report forecasts growing strength for the loonie due to debt woes in the U.S. and Europe.

“Toronto’s exemplary qualities will be on display at the G20 meeting. What great timing for Canada to get the world to look at it in detail. The $1 billion cost that so many Canadians are grumbling about is trivial in terms of what is going to happen to the valuations of Canadian financial assets as a result of this show. It’s worth so much more than winning a hockey title.”

How many restaurants will delegates eat at if they have to leave the compound to find some variety? If talking about banking is good, and Canada's financial system is now a good model, why does the conversation have to happen in downtown Toronto? I keep thinking location should make little difference in a digital world.

My suspicion has been that Harper hopes to push up his polling numbers with this event. He supposedly stands for fiscal restraint--he rode to office, as Tories often do, on the suspicion that the Liberals have been wasteful with taxpayer dollars. On the other hand, he is probably a slave to anyone who briefs him on security or law and order. There are lots of things to be afraid of, just as Colonel Flagg always said on the TV show MASH.

1. Maybe the threats are all or mostly all real--it would be foolish not to take precautions, exactly as the security people say.
2. Siding with the cops is good politics for Tories.
3. If you don't side with the cops, there is occasionally a threat that they will go direct to voters, over your head: "the bastards aren't doing enough to protect us."

Massive spending on a summit is good Keynesian stimulus spending? Overtime for cops?

Simpson again: In preparing for this summit, hoping to manage the message and the politics, Harper stupidly stirred up the abortion issue; even if doing so modestly was part of his plan, it seems to have gone too far; he has led on the bank tax issue; but otherwise he has very little to show to the very few people who even follow the summits, and can't really keep his promises from last time.

There is something small in Harper, including his anger over small matters, that seems to limit his judgment. As long as the Liberals are at 25% in the polls, he can probably keep going with only 35%. But he is not loved.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

More scientists weigh in

I'm beginning to think the jig is up for global warming theory. Many scientists have stayed out of the controversy; they don't want to be political, they don't want to be branded as creationists, and they assumed there were people in charge of climate science who were both honest and competent.

That is changing at least a bit. Some of them are looking more closely--in the manner of someone picking up a dirty diaper. Judith Curry, who is known as a climate scientist, not really sceptical about the main elements of the theory, but concerned about evidence of shoddy practices by climate scientists, has "laid down the gauntlet," challenging defenders of the hockey stick and/or the IPCC to read Montford's book, The Hockey Stick Illusion.

One member of Lord Oxburgh's review panel to establish if the CRU was dishonest was Michael Kelly, Professor of Electronics at Cambridge. He came to the work, as it were, for the first time. He read through papers by Briffa and Jones. First time through Briffa:

My overriding impression that this is a continuing and valiant attempt via a variety of statistical methods to find possible signals in very noisy and patchy data when several confounding factors may be at play in varying ways throughout the data. It would take an expert in statistics to comment on the appropriateness of the various techniques as they are used. The descriptions are couched within an internal language of dendrochronology, and require some patience to try and understand. There is no evidence, as far as I am concerned, of anything other than a straightforward scientific exercise within the confines described above. The papers are full of suitable qualifications about the limitations of the data and the strength of the inferences to be drawn from them. I find no evidence of blatant mal-practice. That is not to say that, working within the current paradigm, choices of data and analysis approach might be made in order to strain to get more out of the data than a dispassionate analysis might permit.

So Briffa does not appear to be outright dishonest--which was apparently the main question facing the Oxburgh group. More and more problems appear: "The line between positive conclusions and the null hypothesis is very fine in my book." Kelly begins to wonder if Briffa has actually proved anything at all.

First time through Jones:

"There is plenty of openness about the limitations of the data. There is no evidence of overt scientific malpractice. That is not to absolve the authors of conscious or unconscious bias in making all the choices referred to above."

Again, no evidence of the most direct dishonesty. "In neither of these papers is there any overt malpractice, but one can't eliminate the possibility of conscious or unconscious bias in the choices of data. I just do wonder if a different hypothesis was being tested whether the same approach could give a very different answer." Kelly is growing uneasy.

Even in the first reading he says he is appalled at the suggestion that data must fit the model, instead of the other way around. The second reading shows more questions, and after the second reading he has questions for both Jones and Briffa.

For Jones:

(7) Given that the outputs of your work are being used to promote the largest revolution mankind has ever contemplated, do you have any sense of the extent to which the quality control and rigour of approach must be of the highest standards in clear expectation of deep scrutiny?
(8) Your critique of the paper by McLean, Freitas and Carter (2009) hinges on arcane aspects of statistical analysis, and they stand by their comments. I have recommended publication of data with a controversial explanation precisely to get the debate going. In other areas of science the best winds out by attrition: why not here?

And there are similar questions for Briffa. Have you proved anything at all? Why do you make it so difficult to establish that? Why do you hide so much of your work and original data? Why are there so few comparisons between well known relatively reliable data and new, potentially enlightening stuff? One gets a sense that after a third reading, Kelly was muttering "bullshit, bullshit, bullshit."

h/t to both Bishop Hill and Steve McIntyre on Kelly.

A.W. Montford (Bishop Hill) says many of those who have defended the hockey stick are trying to back away from it, without admitting that the work that has generated so much grant money has been discredited.

BP, Windmills, natural seepage, etc.

Is BP, as a classic "Big Oil" company, also anti-windmill and anti-solar, so that we can safely divide up the world into good guys and bad guys?

Not exactly. BP has been a major investor in "alternative energy," and partly for that reason, they have been very close to members and supporters of the Obama Administration.

BP's investments in alternative energy may have been largely for show, but it may also be true that alternative energy remains a waste of money--a sinkhole for government money--in any case.

Yglesias doesn't seem to realize this.

One good thing about the social sanction path is that it allows one to draw a distinction between good and bad lobbying. Formally speaking, a lobbyist for windmills is just as much a lobbyist as a lobbyist for big oil. But while the Wind Lobby is not pure as the driven snow, it’s hardly black as an oil slick wrecking the ocean. And even within the realm of profit-seeking corporations, cable companies looking to bilk customers out of money are still a lot less malign than firms involved in the destruction of the planet. Clearly you’re never going to entrench common sense distinctions like that in a law, but they could be entrenched in social practice.

We need the energy. Companies deliver it. While enjoying its benefits, Yglesias expects us to join in a general condemnation of what they do?

Also a funny note. A lot of the wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico, in deep waters, has adapted to hydrocarbon seeps, and some actually depends on oil seepage to survive. But, some of the greens say, the seepage has to be gradual, not sudden. Yes, granted, some tube worms actually depend on seeps of hydrocarbons to survive; but that is gas, not oil. Of course: natural good, man-made bad.

Unintended consequences

A new article in the Lancet makes it clear that the well-meaning effort to encourage the use of deep water wells in Bangladesh has exposed 77 million people to arsenic poisoning.

When the program to sink wells began, no testing was done to see if there was arsenic in the water. Statements have even been made that it was unlikely there would be arsenic in the geological formations under Bangladesh. As many as 10 million wells had been sunk ten years ago.

There have been plenty of warnings over the years about arsenic in the water. Ten years ago it was described as a worse mass poisoning than Bhopal or Chernobyl.

Why was this well-meaning? It was an effort to save the people from drinking surface water, run-off, river water, etc., which was likely to spread bacterial infections.

UNICEF was heavily involved, along with the World Bank. It was found that a quarter of a million children per year could be dying of water-borne infections. Times 40 years would mean 10 million deaths. Instead the development agencies have opted for an approach which will apparently lead to many times that number of deaths. Arsenic is slow-acting, so I gather the poisoning process makes you gradually feel sicker and less productive. I presume children were more at risk from water-borne infections because they have not built up immunity?

The source of the arsenic is 100% natural--there are similar sources affecting drinking water elsewhere in the world as well--and no satisfactory way of removing it from drinking water has been found. Don't bother calling Erin Brockovitch.

This all raises the question: has UNICEF killed more people than BP or Exxon Mobil? More generally, have the do-gooders killed more people than the capitalists?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ice at the Poles

Antarctica: There is not so much concern that the whole of Antarctica is losing ice, or even most of it: the concern is about the southern peninsula, and perhaps one glacier, Pine Island Glacier, in particular.

A new study says the ice may be melting because it shifted off of an underwater ridge, and became exposed to warm ocean currents. It's at least possible that this has nothing to do with global warming.

Lead author Dr Adrian Jenkins of British Antarctic Survey said, “The discovery of the ridge has raised new questions about whether the current loss of ice from Pine Island Glacier is caused by recent climate change or is a continuation of a longer-term process that began when the glacier disconnected from the ridge.

As for the Arctic, once again there will be a summer when the ice retreats rapidly. But one of the experts who contributed to the scare in 2007 is now expressing caution.

“In hindsight, probably too much was read into 2007, and I would take some blame for that,” [NSIDC director Mark] Serreze said. “There were so many of us that were astounded by what happened, and maybe we read too much into it.”

h/t on both pieces to Anthony Watts; Watts points out that on the Arctic, Serreze referred to a “death spiral" in 2007. Donna Laframboise has pursued this farther. It turns out it was actually in 2008 that Serreze said Arctic ice was in a "death spiral," and Serreze wasn't the one who said the Arctic could be nearly ice-free in five years.

Should we say some of these people have made iceholes of themselves?

EPA Endangerment

Among the "petitions for reconsideration," aimed at getting the EPA to re-consider its endangerment finding on CO2, this one by the Pacific Legal Foundation focuses specifically on the fact that the authors of CRU e-mails make it clear that they don't believe themselves in some of the basics of the global warming theory they are known for.

That's the approach I would take. For some reason, they gave every appearance of being very confident in their published work, TV appearances, etc., but the e-mails show something quite different. The science is unsettled, not settled. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that, but we've had a lot of dishonesty about it. See also Phil Jones specifically on the medieval warming period. This is really what the debate about the "hockey stick" is all about. If there was a medieval warming period comparable to the twentieth century, then it was presumably natural, not man-made; it may have had little or nothing to do with greenhouse gases; and there is no record of people whining that their farms in Tennessee were not as green and lush as they used to be.

h/t Climate Audit.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A few thoughts on the Gulf spill

In his big address on how he's now going to take the oil spill very seriously, Obama apparently admitted that he had approved new offshore drilling a few weeks before the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion on April 20, but added that he had done so only "under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe."

This was a very stupid thing to say. No one with any credibility, briefing the President, would say such a thing. Working on an oil drilling platform is obviously dangerous work--as is work on any oil drilling rig. Not as bad as working in a coal mine, of which the U.S. has many, "absolutely safe" or not, but pretty bad.

If he was referring to the possibility of major disasters, it may be even more ridiculous to speak of "absolute safety." He almost certainly wasn't told anything like this, and if he was, he almost certainly didn't believe it. So he's either a fool, or he's lying.

Of course, all he's done so far for the people of the Gulf Coast is kill jobs. The moratorium means many drilling rigs will leave U.S. waters, putting Americans out of work and increasing the need of the U.S. to import oil. The rigs that remain will be the older, less safe kind--so if American workers can still get jobs, they will be the unsafe kind, rather than "absolutely safe."

And from Slate, some perspective that we are not getting very much: Louisana's wetlands were toast even before the oil spill, and the attention given to the oil spill might even cause some money to be spent on the problem.

If the wetlands go, Louisiana will go along with them. The state's seafood industry would crater, and every bit of marsh that's lost means a higher storm surge when a hurricane careens through the Gulf of Mexico. But the state's wetlands were dying long before the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Indeed, as you fly over Grand Isle and Barataria Bay, the oil spill seems almost irrelevant. On the helicopter ride over from New Orleans, the Jefferson Parish police officers on board seem less awed by the scope of the oil spill than by the "amazing land loss" in southeastern Louisiana over the last few decades.

As every schoolboy in Louisiana learns, the state loses a football field's worth of wetlands every 38 minutes. The Times-Picayune's edifying and terrifying interactive feature "The Rise and Disappearance of Southeast Louisiana" does a clear, concise job explaining the causes. Levees built to rein in the Mississippi River cut off the supply of sediment needed to replenish coastal land. Canals cut for boat traffic and natural gas pipelines invited in marsh-killing saltwater. And Hurricanes Katrina and Rita accelerated the destruction. The result: Fishing camps that used to be on canals are cut off entirely from land, brown pelicans and white ibis confined to the tiniest of islands, and once-thriving wetlands like Barataria Bay transformed into open water. New Orleans itself, the Times-Picayune warns, could be entirely surrounded by water in 10 years if today's erosion rates continue.

At worst, BP's millions of gallons of oil per day will exacerbate what already seemed like runaway destruction. At best, the oil spill could generate the money and the political will needed to affect substantive change—Jindal has made coastal restoration his cause célèbre and President Obama has vowed "that we're going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

RCMP and CSIS: Who's the Stupidest?

From the Major Report on the Air India terrorist attack--Canada's 9/11, unrelated to Islam.

1.1.1 CSIS

CSIS had been created less than a year before the terrorist attack. At the time,
it was still primarily focused on Cold War priorities like counter-espionage.
CSIS was poorly trained and under-resourced for counter-terrorism, and what
resources existed were focused primarily on threats other than those emanating
from Sikh extremism.
Although human sources are the lifeblood of intelligence, CSIS had few, if any,
sources in the Sikh community in the pre-bombing period. Its ability to respond
to Sikh terrorism was further impaired by unwieldy policies and procedures for
There seemed little sense of purpose to CSIS intelligence gathering in this
area. The information gathered from the wiretap on Talwinder Singh Parmar,1
obtained after months of delay, was not processed eff ectively or in a timely
manner; it was ignored by CSIS investigators and, to compound the problem,

1 The person who, at the time, was thought to be the leader of a terrorist group.
Chapter I: Introduction 23

the tapes of the wiretap were prematurely and unthinkingly erased, even
after the bombing. Surveillance on Parmar was intermittent and ineff ective.
Even though a surveillance team was present when Parmar and his associates
detonated a device in the woods near Duncan, causing a loud explosive sound,
the sound was misinterpreted and the surveillance report was ignored. Despite
the remarkable and unambiguously alarming behaviour witnessed by the
surveillance team, further surveillance was called off on the very day of the
bombing in order to follow a Cold War target.
Most importantly, however, the CSIS analysis of the threat posed by Sikh
extremism was handicapped because it was not provided with key intelligence
information in the possession of the RCMP and the Communications Security
Establishment (CSE).

1.1.2 RCMP
In the wake of the creation of CSIS, the RCMP attempted to reconstitute its
intelligence capacity on the basis of a misguided emphasis on its mandate to
investigate “security off ences” for criminal purposes. The decentralized RCMP
structure was not easily adaptable to the needs of intelligence gathering and
analysis. Little thought was put into the reporting relationships and requirements
that would allow for eff ective collection and analysis of intelligence information.
The result was that, at best, the RCMP duplicated CSIS intelligence gathering
and, at worst, it failed to report important information that CSIS might have
been able to use in its intelligence analysis.
Despite its aspirations to be an intelligence-gathering agency, the RCMP
showed a surprising lack of understanding of the nature or purpose of
intelligence gathering. The RCMP neglected to consider, let alone report or
pass on to CSIS, important information to which it had access from local forces,
such as the Khurana information about a comment by a Sikh extremist leader
in mid-June 1985, that something would be done in two weeks to address the
absence of attacks on Indian interests. The RCMP focused to such an extent on
gathering information of evidentiary value or admissibility that it prematurely
dismissed information that was useful intelligence. Often, the Force’s subjective
judgement of credibility for evidentiary use was inadequate even for criminal
law purposes, let alone as a justifi cation for failing to report threat information
to other agencies.
The failure to understand the value of intelligence and the importance of
reporting meant that, when information was received by the RCMP, CSIS was
often not given a proper report. This is what happened with the November
Plot information about Sikh extremists who were planning to bomb one, and
possibly two, Air India planes in November 1984. This is also what happened
when, unforgivably, the RCMP did not forward to CSIS the June 1st Telex that set
out Air India’s own intelligence, forecasting a June terrorist attempt to bomb
an Air India fl ight by means of explosives hidden in checked baggage. This
fact, which the RCMP did not reveal to the Honorable Bob Rae in 2005, was
uncovered by the Commission.

Christy's Summary of Climate Science

John Christy testified at the review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Science (IPCC) by the Inter-Academy Council (IAC). A nice summary: climate science is (understandably) unsettled, not settled, and the IPCC has given a very distorted picture, which has no doubt been made even worse by Gore etc.

h/t Bishop Hill.

John Christy's credentials:

Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science
Director, Earth System Science Center
Alabama State Climatologist
University of Alabama in Huntsville

IPCC Lead Author: 2001 TAR
Contributor: 1992 Supplement
Contributor: 1994 Radiative Forcing of Climate Change
Key Contributor: 1995 SAR
Contributing Author: 2007 AR4, WG I and II

NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement
American Meteorological Society Special Award for satellite observations
Fellow, American Meteorological Society

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Davey Johnston, Mulroney, and Love Story

A strange twist on the Mulroney story: because David Johnston, President of the University of Waterloo, was asked by Prime Minister Harper to draw up terms of reference for the Oliphant inquiry into Mulroney's sleazy business practices, and those terms of reference precluded answers on what Canadians most want to know about Mulroney, Johnston may now go from front-runner for Governor General, to also ran.

Johnston held various positions during the Mulroney years, none of which he mentions on his official bio any more. He presumably feels some loyalty to Mulroney. Did he deliberately circumscribe the investigation into Mulroney's doings in a way that would supposedly save Mulroney further embarrassment, if not actual legal trouble? Who knows?

But there's a further funny note. Al Gore's defenders will say he didn't actually lie about the extent to which the main characters in the novel Love Story were based on himself and Tipper. He said Oliver, the male lead, was based partly on himself and partly on Tommy Lee Jones. Author Erich Segal has agreed. (Gore, Jones, and Segal were all friends at Harvard--Gore and Jones roommates, Segal a junior prof). He also mentioned an article in his home-town newspaper that somewhat exaggerated the extent to which Al and Tipper were both models for the novel. Did Gore ever correct this exaggeration? Did he mention the Tennessean article strategically, hoping it would be repeated? Again who knows? I tend to believe Gore stops just short of being a pathological liar as well as a fool.

David Johnston, by comparison, is the real thing in more ways than one. Love Story mentions the captain of the Harvard hockey team, a Canadian named Davey. That was Johnston, who won a hockey scholarship to Harvard from his home town of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario--and went on to great things from there.

Friday, June 11, 2010


I'm totally sick of today's vets running up the bill, and proposing needless tests. I will hesitate to get a dog again simply because of this behaviour. Is it even ethical?

I took our two dogs in for their annual check-up. Hero is 13, Jack may be 17, we can't be sure. I report that Jack is showing his years, slowing a bit, etc. He has always had more incidents of growling stomach, skipping breakfast, sometimes throwing up than Hero. I mention all this while saying I'm not sure it's really getting worse. The vet 1. tries to sell me diet supplements for Jack, such as I take as a runner, for arthritis symptoms--I haven't noticed any arthritis symptoms in either Jack or me; 2. recommends a blood test which I go for; 3. follows up on the blood test by saying there is some decrease in values having to do with kidney function; combined with vomiting, this may indicate a very early stage of kidney failure, cancer or leptosporosis. She recommends testing for all of these things, I talk to Laura and we opt for testing for none of them.

A 17-year-old dog? This is what all vets are like now. When Jack recently had his skin tag removed (something he'd had all his life), two different vets starting thinking out loud about sending it out for biopsy. One said: but I guess he had it all his life, so it's not likely to be malignant. The other said: even if it's something that's going to grow again, we'll just remove it again. So: there was no earthly reason to even consider a biopsy, they're just in the habit of recommending expensive stuff to see if owners will go for it. We went to a different set of vets that time partly to find more conservative/cheaper vets. Fat chance.

I looked an article on this from a few years ago in Slate.

Mulroney: Give Us Back the Money

Incredibly, when a letter was leaked in which the RCMP said that Brian Mulroney took bribes in relation to the purchase of Airbus planes by the Canadian government, Mulroney sued and was paid over $2 million by the Canadian government due to alleged damage to his reputation.

Now it is crystal clear to everyone that Mulroney is a liar and a whore. No honest person has ever done business by taking bags of cash in return for services that are not specified in any known document. What reputation could he possibly have that would be worth $2 million? How could it be described as outrageous, or even unfair, to call him a crook who takes bribes when we have all seen with some clarity what he is?

I hope some way can be found to ensure we taxpayers get the money back. See also here and here.

I'm not nearly as concerned about who has the Order of Canada. It's only to be expected that there are some rogues in that company. This is one of the disadvantages of giving great honours to the living rather than the dead. (Hobbes says the dead are praised as one more way of putting down our living rivals; we seem to be reversing this fact by honouring practically everyone).

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Anatomy of an Epidemic

I've referred briefly to this book by Robert Whitaker before.

Amazingly to me, and I think to a lot of people, there is clear, solid evidence that all the psychiatric drugs do more harm than good in the long term. They not only fail to get a patient well enough to work, study, have relationships, etc., but they generally introduce new illnesses, both mental and physical. When experts are asked specific questions about this, there has been no real doubt about it for decades. There is a true epidemic of mental illness--a higher proportion of the population is mentally ill than ever--and to a large extent this epidemic is caused, not successfully treated, by the psychiatric drugs that are constantly prescribed.

Why then does psychiatry keep prescribing these drugs? There is usually a short-term benefit in treating the extreme symptoms--and even in treating simple problems like anxiety or mild depression. Even though studies show the vast majority of people would recover without drugs, and even better, would avoid future episodes if they stay off drugs, it would take time to see these results. Western psychiatrists, and patients (and/or their families), like seeing short-term benefits, and they simply get out of the habit of asking about the long term. This tendency is reinforced by the fact that withdrawal from the drugs is often painful and difficult, and leads to an outbreak of the original symptoms. The drug "works" (initially); stopping the drug "doesn't work"; therefore people stay on drugs, even though their overall condition gets steadily worse on the drugs, in a way that was not true of mental patients before the "super drug" era, and the life expectancy of patients is drastically lowered.

Psychiatrists have convinced us--and to some extent, they seem to convince themselves--that all of this simply has to be accepted. These patients are mentally ill, they should never expect to "return to normal," all of the massive problems that result from the drugs have to be accepted because, after all, the drugs are necessary for the patients' main or biggest problem, etc.

Coming from where I do, I compare this to climate science, where there have been successful efforts to deliver skewed research, control the message that emerges from "peer-reviewed" publications, and then keep telling the public that "all the real climate scientists" think in only one way, based on evidence. With psychiatry, the real evidence about drugs is not difficult to find--to the credit of the profession, the research has been done, evidence has been published in peer-reviewed publications. But psychiatrists in their daily practice largely ignore this evidence. This is another twist on "trust the experts who use peer-reviewed research." Can a whole community of people, probably bright, with impressive degrees from good schools, trusted by millions, be going wrong all at once, due to a kind of group think? Yes. Does peer review protect us from that? No.

Why? Without super-drugs, what would psychiatrists have? Some kind of talk. They like to say patients have to take drugs all their lives, just as diabetics have to take insulin. But, amazingly, no mental illness has ever been successfully described in biological/chemical terms, in the way diabetes has been described, and the psychiatric drugs do not fix a biological/chemical problem in the way that insulin fixes the symptoms of diabetes. In my own crude language: some mental illness seem to involve an excess of brain activity (schizophrenia being the most extreme), others a defect or loss of activity (depression without mania). The drugs can counteract one or the other for about two weeks, and this is probably linked somehow--probably no one really knows how--with the alleviation of symptoms. But then--and again, this has been very well established--the brain compensates by doing even more of what the drug is trying to stop it from doing. The reason drug withdrawal is so difficult is that the brain now has a new kind of activity, triggered by the drug, somewhat in opposition to the drug, and that activity will cause the patient problems if the drug is abruptly withdrawn. But that changed or warped brain activity, ultimately caused by the drug itself, will cause lifelong problems. It is almost always better for the patient not to start on the drug in the first place. "The treatment turns a period of crisis into a chronic mental illness" (quoting Amy Upham, p. 205).

Nothing like this is true for diabetes and insulin. Insulin doesn't cause new problems which eventually worsen the original problem and add new ones. Insulin supplies a specific deficiency, and does exactly what "natural" insulin does in healthy people. Diabetes doesn't have "episodes" which come and go, and would eventually become little or no problem, if left untreated, for most patients. Psychiatrists want to be real doctors, not witch doctors or mere wise counsellors. Real doctors in the twentieth century were able to deploy "magic bullets"--antibiotics, insulin, and others, which respond to specific biological and chemical problems with specific solutions. If psychiatry still has nothing like that, it may be back somewhere before Freud. More evidence for this is the way the descriptions of diseases keep changing, and the fact that there is no official basis for preferring one approach to the field to another. I gather pretty much all psychiatrists prescribe drugs now, if only because billing for that is something insurers and funding agencies can understand.

Whitaker doesn't simply propose moving to a world with no psychiatric drugs as quickly as possible. He tends to say there may be some patients who actually need certain drugs, at least for a short time. He says many patients now treated with drugs may be difficult to live with or treat without them. They may require some kind of talk therapy in a community to get better--and that may be more expensive, in the short term, than the drugs. There are such people as hyper-active children--some of them calm down, and some of them don't, but it is unlikely that powerful drugs are the best solution. He says many psychiatrists and their official organizations, even government organizations, have told reassuring stories about drugs as opposed to the truth. His recommendations are as follows:

We need to become informed about the long-term outcomes literature reviewed in this book, and then we need to ask the NIMH, NAMI, the APA, and all those who prescribe the medications to address the many questions raised by that literature. In other words, we need to have an honest scientific discussion. We need to talk about what is truly known about the biology of mental disorders, about what the drugs actually do, and about how the drugs increase the risk that people will become chronically ill. If we could have that discussion, then change would surely follow. Our society would embrace and promote alternative forms of non-drug care. Physicians would prescribe the medications in a much more limited, cautious manner. We would stop putting foster children on heavy-duty cocktails and pretending that it was medical care.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Oil Spills: Less Drama, Please

Donna Laframboise says it very well:

Journalists do love to go on about how supposedly "fragile" nature is. According to Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper the current oil spill threatens "fragile shorelines." The Associated Press says the environment overall as well as marshes specifically are fragile. Reuters mentions both the "fragile ecosystem" and the "fragile Louisiana marshlands" in the current version of its timeline.

But recent history tells us something rather different. It says that while human lives – and livelihoods – are indeed fragile, Mother Nature is more resilient than we give her credit for.

Let's get that well capped. Let's clean up the mess and do what we can for the affected wildlife. But really, the eco drama queen routine isn't necessary.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Swine flu: Not a Hoax, But ....

UPDATE June 5: the EU smells a rat, and it works for WHO.

I get a sense that there is now a new push-back on last year's swine flu. It looked like a fiasco at the time--so few deaths it was actually an unusually good flu season--with government agencies constantly nagging us to get vaccinated.

So the New Scientist runs a short piece by Debora MacKenzie. "Don't worry folks, it wasn't a hoax."

Critics now allege the flu was less deadly than normal flu, meaning vast sums of public money were wasted on nothing more than a scare. Some even claim that it was a conspiracy to boost vaccine company profits.

MacKenzie doesn't exactly provide a ringing rebuttal to the statements by "critics."

First and foremost, the notion that swine flu is not so deadly is an illusion caused by incomplete statistics: it certainly rivals normal flu, and its impact so far exceeds some previous flu pandemics.

Wow. It "rivals" normal flu, and it has an "impact" (deaths? serious cases of illness? mass hysteria caused by official exaggerations?) that exceeds "some" (how many?) previous pandemics. Scary stuff.

Later we find this:

Even though early reports from Mexico suggested a high mortality rate, when the virus hit the US in April it did seem fairly benign. Should the vaccine plans have been shelved at that point?

Nobody knew in April last year what swine flu would be like six months down the line, at the start of the winter flu season in the northern hemisphere. It could have turned very nasty - and to have vaccine ready for that eventuality meant making it immediately.

So it's not so much that the virus actually was nasty--it was "fairly benign"--but that it could have been, and it was wise to go ahead with large-scale production of vaccine. Her argument seems to be that no one could have known any better, the cautious approach, i.e. encouraging large-scale vaccination, was the best, and people who criticize what was done are putting people at risk in the future.

Governments have pandemic vaccine orders in place largely because they are worried about bird flu. Nobody disputes that this is the correct strategy. If this highly lethal virus starts spreading readily in people, it could be worse than the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed millions. But other flu viruses are potential pandemic threats too.

Flu evolves, especially when it is blasting through millions of new hosts.

We know the 1918 virus got worse as it spread.

But is this whole picture true? That a terrible flu pandemic is more or less inevitable, that it is likely to be bird flu but might be another kind, and that the worst kind is one that hasn't been around (or one like it hasn't been around) for a long time--so we have a population mostly lacking antibodies against it? If this is all true, anyone criticizing the attempt to vaccinate much of the population must have been very irresponsible.

The Toronto Globe and Mail discusses a report by Ontario's present Medical Officer of Health. Why was there a mis-match between demand for flu vaccine and supply? At an early stage, there were huge, highly publicized line-ups of frustrated people. Only a few weeks later, vaccine was going begging. Overall, fewer people were vaccinated than officials had expected and hoped.

Health experts say the low rates point to failings on the part of provinces. Alberta, for example, initially ignored an agreed-upon priority list and said it would vaccinate anyone who showed up, forcing clinics to close abruptly. Ontario did the same, resulting in waits as long as six hours. Experts say confusion reigned, and the lack of co-ordination shook public confidence in how the pandemic was being handled.

What is more, anti-vaccine advocates or doctors expressed skepticism about the severity of the pandemic. As much as they tried, health officials, mainly in larger provinces, could not persuade the public to get vaccinated.

“In a small province you can control the message much easier than in a larger place where … you will always find a professor of something or a previous chief medical officer of health or someone else to say they disagree, the vaccine is not safe or the adjuvant is not properly tested or the pandemic is not so bad so why bother and so on,” said Paul Van Buynder, deputy chief medical officer of health in New Brunswick, a province that vaccinated 65 per cent of its population.

“I think it’s very difficult to get 75 per cent of the public to go and do something if the message they’re getting is actually a mixed message.”

Dr. Richard Schabas, a previous Medical Officer of Health (and probably the one referred to above), has questioned all of these beliefs beginning in April 2009.

See here, here, and here.

Schabas says that in general, viruses mutate in the direction of being less virulent--evolution would favour a virus that doesn't kill its host. The exception that Schabas doesn't spell out is when a population shifts from rural to urban, or simply becomes more congested: more hosts, less of a price to be paid if a virus becomes highly virulent. He does mention the 1918-19 flu, and he says he doubts that it was the same virus both years. The first year was fairly mild, the second year much worse--probably a different virus, which again became increasingly less virulent as time went on.

Bird flu a few years ago was a bust, as was SARS, and there have been others. Public health people and epidemiologists go for big dramatic scares--partly to add to their budgets, and partly because they don't want to be stuck with the topics of bad cheese and the proper use of seat belts. But they are crying wolf.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Peer Reviewed

It turns out that Dr. Andrew Wakefield has had various claptrap theories over the years. The best part: he's been able to publish them in prestigious peer-reviewed journals.