Monday, July 12, 2004

Seed Magazine: Germinating or gone to seed?

Seed is a relatively new magazine whose tag line is “science is culture”. The current issue, Nr 9, Spring 2004, has the first of a series of articles about science and society and about the environment and the election. Next is an investigative report on mercury in vaccines and its connection to childhood autism. An iconoclastic profile of Percival Lowell rounds out the three feature articles.

The next section is “Articles & Essays”. A column (an odd choice of words for an article running 15 print columns over five pages) titled “The Burden of Power” looks at the US position of power in the world (the writer makes liberal use of “hegemony” and “superpower”), and raises questions of what a Bush or Kerry win would mean in terms of US influence and the role of science in our approach to world affairs. But this article is little more than a thinly-disguised attack on the administration, coupled with a less thinly-disguised endorsement - mainly by implication - of Kerry.

The highlight of the issue, in my opinion, is a conversation between E. O. Wilson and Daniel Dennett, one that ranges from evolution to the relation between religion and science.  Dennett makes a tantalizing suggestion that religion would be an appropriate subject for a scientific study. (Though I can't imagine that he hasn’t read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. On the other hand, his views on religion are well known.  He recently coined the term brights to refer to people unencumbered by religious beliefs.) 

The article the editors want you to read first - because it’s the cover story - is about the election. The headline blares “Vote Science 2004”, but the unwavering drumbeat is “Vote Kerry 2004”. Of 32 persons and organizations cited and quoted, exactly one - Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit - is anywhere close to being called conservative.  Of the thirteen organizations, they make no distinction between the Sierra Club and MoveOn.org - which is described only as “an organization dedicated to ousting Bush”.

The term “screed” has popped up more than a few times in the blogosphere. I’d say that this is another good place to apply that label.  “The Burden of Power” is another nice fit.  Perhaps they should change their name from seed to screed – it adds only two letters.

“Vote Science 2004” – subtitled “The Greening of Election 2004” – is certainly long and monotonous. A single note sounds throughout the piece: the environment is under massive attack, and only Kerry can save it.  The writer is Amanda Griscom, who also writes for AlterNet, Grist Magazine, Rolling Stone, and CommonDreams.org.

Here are some of her claims – made with no supporting evidence:

George Bush has been called an environmental villain.

He’s been called a lot worse than that.

… blatant disregard for the health of the Earth.
America is in an economic recession

Ms Griscom hasn’t been reading the news recently.

The Bush administration has the worst environmental record in American history.

One of the Left’s favorite lines: “Bush is the worst president since…”

There is wide-ranging evidence of misdeeds in the area of environment.
Bush is governing from the right, shown by his assault on the environment
Many Republicans think Bush’s environmental policies are radical.
The Bush energy plan calls for more oil and gas drilling in pristine lands.

“Pristine” – evidently meaning ANWR – seems to mean home of millions of mosquitoes

The administration has failed to push for a clean-energy industry, unlike the Japanese and Europeans.
The Bush administration decided to pull out of the Kyoto protocol

Actually, it was the US Senate, who voted against it, 95 – 0, in 2001.

The Bush administration is working to destroy the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

A crudely-drawn two-page spread in the middle of the article notches up the fear quotient by highlighting really scary facts:

EU Commissioner for the Environment Margot Wallstrom had her blood tested for chemicals. They found traces of 28 chemicals, including DDT – banned in Europe. However, she seems to be in pretty good shape, despite being a walking toxic dump:



seeds source is evidently based on this 2003 European Commission report

Another graphic warns us about the food we eat: milk is “infused with bovine growth hormone”, fish is loaded with “cancer-causing PCBs”, and “don’t forget the beef, kids,you’ll go mad for it!”, genetically modified fruits and vegetables have  “unknown long-term health effects”,  GM rice with vitamin A “will keep you from going blind! Maybe”.

 The GM rice is perhaps the only reasonable hope that a large part of India’s population will ever have of getting enough vitamin A.

There’s a “Human Worth Index”, putting the human body at about $4 million – down from $6 million (before all this nasty environmental stuff).   The only Google reference to “human worth index” is the seed page.  (I remember some years ago, there used to be an annual “human worth” calculation, based on elemental content, and it usually worked out to about $6 or $7.  Sort of like melting down a Rodin sculpture and finding the value of the metal.)

On the Kerry side:

Kerry voted in favor of 96% of all environmental legislation during his 20 years in the Senate.

Some of it may even have been good legislation.

Kerry “emphasized the connection between the environment, jobs, and national security in his stump speeches more than any other candidate”.

How could we have missed the connection between the environment and national security? We’ll certainly need lots of trees to hide behind.

Kerry’s environmentalism stretches back to 1970, when he spoke at the first Earth Day conference.

Maybe he did.  The only Google record of that is seed’s page.  But there are lots of interesting hits for “earth day conference”.  One of the few mentioning Kerry is this one, where Kerry says, no, he doesn’t own an SUV, it’s just his family that does.

He’s the Senate leader in the fight against drilling in the ANWR and the “infamous Bush-Cheney energy plan”.

Never miss an opportunity to editorialize.

He’s married to Teresa Heinz Kerry, “one of the most powerful environmental philanthropists in the country.”

Must be a typo – I’m sure they meant “activists”.

Kerry has the potential to be the greenest president in American history (Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters

I seriously doubt that this wuld be a good thing. Europe – mainly Germany and France – have their influential Green parties. Much of what they’ve done ends up as material for late-night TV monologues.  Like laws mandating that pig farmers provide toys for their pigs to play with, and spend quality time with their pigs.

From the LCV website:

Senator John Edwards has amassed a solid record on public health and conservation issues…

… by suing doctors for malpractice, based on medically unsupported evidence, in carefully-chosen counties likely to return huge awards, of which Edwards pocketed one-third.

So, in fact, Edwards and his ilk are one of the principal causes of high medical costs – malpractice insurance premiums for OBGYNs – the group most targeted by his suits – can run to almost $200,000 a year.  An unexpected result of his heroic legal efforts is that hundreds of doctors – mostly OBGYNs – are retiring early or leaving for other states, in effect, leaving women doctorless. Mississippi is particularly hard-hit by a doctor exodus.

Kerry will create 10 million new jobs during his first term in office. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment this June was 8.2 million.  Kerry would have to bring in another 2 million people to the country to reach his target.

Here are the groups Griscom quotes:

The Sierra Club
MoveOn.org/Eli Parser (“an online organization dedicated to ousting Bush”)
The New Democrat Network/Simon Rosenberg
Judicial Watch (“a conservative ethics watchdog group”)
Earth Justice
Natural Resources Defense Council
Environment 2004
League of Conservation Voters (“a bipartisan group”)
Republicans for Environmental Protection
The Union Of Concerned Scientists  (“a non-partisan alliance” - a little about UCS)
Apollo Alliance
Common Assets Defense Fund

In one unintentionally funny section, Griscom tells of using “politically-minded celebrities such as the Beastie Boys and Alanis Morrisette” to “get the message out”.   That’s really where I want to get my political insights.

She reveals one particularly interesting fact about campaign donations – one that isn’t getting enough publicity:

… the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law … [limits] the amount of soft money that can go directly to the DNC and the Kerry campaign. Now donors are redirecting much of the funding … [to]  … more targeted, issue-specific organizations whose campaign missions are aligned with those of the party.

Under McCain-Feingold, a supporter is limited to giving  $2000 to a political party.  However, there are loopholes big enough to drive Arnold’s Hummer through.

For one thing, George Soros can give $10 million to seedy organizations like MoveOn.org, which has only one aim in life.

She ends with a quote from Al Gore’s New York speech:

After all, we brought down communism, won wars in the Pacific and Europe simultaneously, enacted the Marshall Plan, found a cure for polio, and put men on the moon. When we set our sights on a visionary goal and are unified in pursuing it, there is very little we cannot accomplish.

Brought down Communism: thank you, Ronald Reagan.
Won wars in the Pacific and Europe : there are times when we have to go to war, and when we do, we have to expect to win.
The Marshall Plan: something France and Germany seem reluctant to remember – maybe because it is a shining example of our “hegemony”.

The other main article, “Burden of Power” is by Pulitzer-winning journalist Laurie Garrett. (That’s a graphics-intensive site – it even taxed my broadband connection.  This one is more user-friendly.

Her credentials and bio are impressive, but the article she turned out for seed is not.

A quick run-through of “Burden of Power” (my occasional emphasis in bold)

… an all–powerful hegemonic state doesn’t need to be truthful…
… the US government … is rife with appointees who believe that scientific truth and Christian truth cannot be synonymous, and may well be in opposition…
…the administration is distorting and censoring scientific findings that contradict its policies; manipulating the underlying science to align results with predetermined political decisions…
…[at the Davos conference] It was January, snow was falling relentlessly on the alpine village, and Cheney’s icy demeanor mirrored the temperature outside. With little change in expression, save the occasional derisive smirk, the vice president took the stage to tell the world’s residents how they ought to conduct themselves…
The O’Neill book, "The Price of Loyalty", authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, had only been out 11 days when Cheney made those dismissive comments [“I wouldn’t believe everything I read in it.”] about a man with whom he had worked in three Republican administrations and had counted among his close friends…”

Wait a minute – is it O’Neill’s book or Suskind’s? She seems to accept the book as Revealed Truth. But there are rough edges in it.

“Suskind claimed he has documents showing that preparations for the Iraq war were well underway before 9-11. He cited--and even showed--what he said was a Pentagon document, entitled, 'Foreign Suitors for Iraq Oilfield Contracts.' He claimed the document was about planning for post-war Iraq oil.
But that is not a Pentagon document. It's from the Vice-President's Office. It was part of the Energy Project that was the focus of Dick Cheney's attention before the 9/11 strikes.
And the document has nothing to do with post-war Iraq. It was part of a study of global oil supplies.
There is only one possible conclusion: Paul O'Neill and Ron Suskind are attempting to perpetrate a massive hoax on the American people.

It’s disappointing to find a journalist of Garrett’s stature caught in a trap that could have been avoided with a little of the investigative journalism that won her the Pulitzer, the Peabody, and the Polk.

And why did Cheney wait so long before commenting on it?
The two cabinet secretaries [O’Neill and EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman] shared a strong sense that the scientific community had made its case: that global warming was a reality, and that America had to do its part to immediately reduce fossil fuel emissions.”

The debate on global warning goes on. Bjørn Lomborg makes a good case for the opposition, and he’s far from alone.

Coming this August will be Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bob Woodward’s latest book, Plan of Attack, said to offer a grim blow-by-blow account of how a tiny, ultra-right wing clique took over the White House and reshaped every single department and agency in the US government. Fact-based policies were thrown out; and ideological litmus tests were instituted in every niche of the Executive Branch.”

Here’s Slate’s take on it:

Want to read Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack,without plowing through all 467 gossip-soaked pages?

Back to the article:

But Kerry so far has engaged in national debate by drawing from the Democrats’ standard book of arguments about protecting union jobs and cutting tax breaks for the rich.

It’s nice to have someone validate the party position.

Even those handfuls of Americans who could correctly define the term, Biden insisted, would shudder in embarrassment to learn that the United States is the undisputed hegemonic state of the early twenty-first century.”

Not like most science-fiction readers, who have known the word for decades, most recently in the current Ender novels of Orson Scott Card (Shadow of the Hegemon).  Knowing the word, I think they’d be quite proud that our country has reached that point, and of all the empires of civilization, used its great power far more often for good than ill. Think back to Al Gore’s crack about the Marshall Plan.

…it’s been harder still, to retain hegemony without angering every other nation in the world and bankrupting our own with costly military expenditures aimed at maintaining world “order” a.k.a. power.

Well, Britain doesn't seem doesn't seem all that cross with us, but evidently they don’t count.  And we’re hardly “bankrupt”.  Russia is bankrupt (again), and the EU is a lot closer to the edge than we are.

…As we drive down the streets of Cincinnati, St. Louis, Detroit, Dallas, or Nashville we see cultural icons that are not at all the trappings of a gilded nation: tacky fast-food joints, graffiti declarations of neighborhood warfare. … street corner mini-malls where over-priced gallons of milk are sold in the same aisle as motor oil.

They’re called “convenience stores”, where you have the convenience of getting just about anything you need in one place, instead of driving all over town. That convenience is going to cost a little more, perhaps almost as much as in the few remaining neighborhood mom & pop stores.

And the last time I looked, milk was in the cooler, and oil was out on the shelves.  Cold oil and warm milk don’t really sell all that well.

Sure, there are blights, as there are anywhere in the world – and there are a  lot more over the rest of the world than here. 

Ms Garrett might try driving past museums, art galleries, local theater groups, parks, forests, major hospitals, universities, and research centers to even out her bleak view of the country.

…most Americans are struggling to make ends meet. Mom and Dad are both putting in 40-hour work weeks, commuting through this dismal landscape
It’s difficult to really feel like a citizen of an all-powerful state when you’re buying Vietnamese-made Nikes at the mall and wondering why the mortgage is still impossible to meet, even after refinancing it down to a remarkable 5.5 percent 30-year loan.

Impossible to meet? Ms Garrett should take another little jaunt through research-land and check out the statistics for home foreclosures. In 2002, the rate was about 1.23%, a far cry from “impossible”.  From a 2003 Reuters story, the rate was 1.2% - holding steady from the year before.

There are certainly areas of the country that aren’t doing as well as others.  Still, we have the highest per-capita number of millionaires – and new ones – in the world (excepting perhaps the oil-rich countries of the Middle East – whose wealth is concentrated in the few royal families).

If the US is so uncomfortable with being the world’s superpower, “shouldn’t it get out of the superpower business?” asked Josef Joffe, publisher of Germany’s prominent Die Zeit newspaper. … Thierry de Montbrial, president of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales, told Biden: “America is a hegemon. America is the hegemon, whether the US likes it or not.

Just what we need – the Germans and the French giving us advice.  How are your unemployment figures, Mr Joffee, Mr Montbrial? And how about your GDP?

If all the armies of the entire world united, they could not defeat America’s massive, well-trained sophisticated forces.

We’re good, and our military is certainly the best, but China has a much larger army.  A conventional  war with China is not something we’d want to undertake.  China’s army numbers about 2.2 million men, which is more than ours. Our military was dramatically reduced during the last administration.  One thing we do have in excess is technology.  Our weapons systems are probably better and more accurate than anybody else’s, but every commander knows that the battle is ultimately won by soldiers on the ground.

On Meet The Press this spring, Senator Ted Kennedy, one of the few unabashed voices of liberalism on Capitol Hill,….

Now there’s an understatement.

Heck, we even come close to having hegemonic domination of many fields of science, though, thankfully, science isn’t an entirely American enterprise.

To dominate in a field of science is to excel. Take a look at Nobel Science Prizes since 1990 (an arbitrary cutoff date). Science prizes are in Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine.  They’re awarded, you may remember, by the Swedish Nobel Foundation.

Physics: 20 winners from the US (in some years, the prize was divided between two or more researchers)
Chemistry: 18
Physiology or Medicine: 19

57 Nobel Prizes in 10 years – I’d say we were doing rather well.  If that makes for a hegemony, that’s just fine with me. And I suggest to Ms Garrett that we don’t do it to lord over the rest of the world.

In his State of the Union address to Congress in 2002, President Bush called for a $15 billion program to tackle HIV, AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in poor countries. … Bush framed the effort in religious terms, saying on April 29, 2003, that fighting AIDS, “is rooted in the simplest of moral duties.

OK, then, what’s the bad part of that?

Some critics on the left have charged that the administration’s religious commitment to fighting AIDS is disingenuous.

Does anyone doubt what they’d say if we did nothing? In fact, they’re already compaining that we do too little.

The truth is that only $350 million worth of AIDS programs has been executed under the program so far. And those dollars come with a price both for the American scientists trying to treat people overseas and the governments who receive them.

The price:

…In addition, prevention through abstinence messages — messages about the importance of young people delaying becoming sexually active until they are married or in a committed relationship — will reach about 500,000 additional young people.

There’s that nasty old morality again.

How, earnest leaders wondered out loud in Davos, could the Bush Administration have been so wrong about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?

For a while there I thought she’d never get around to the WMD mantra.  Yes, the CIA was wrong. But Bush wasn’t the only one who believed them.  Congress believed them, and voted to go to war.  The UN believed the case, and hurled mighty resolutions against Saddam – which he continually ignored.  Tony Blair believed the case.

And Saddam believed he had them – else why spend so much effort on trying to hoodwink 10 years worth of UN inspectors? And they still might be there – buried in Iranian bunkers, or salted away in neighboring Iran.  We’ll probably never know.

But if there’s good reason to think that somebody in you neighborhood has a gun and an attitude, it’s the wiser course of action to try to take him out – one way or another – rather than wait for him to take you out.

It still looks like that perhaps there are more things hidden in the unfathomable Iraqi desert than are dreamed of in our philosophy:

Will it be possible to hold elections in Iraq, after the June 30th transfer of rule? Can that nation be restored to stability?

So far, it looks good.  Iraqis are mostly in control of their own country, and they will be able to deal with their terrorists much more harshly than we were.

Next comes a long section of Bill Clinton quotes.  Bill said this, Bill said that… One that stands out:

We’ve got the energy, brain power, generosity of spirit: Tell us how to organize the world of our dreams,” Clinton said plaintively.

If he really had the energy, brain power, and generosity, he wouldn’t have had to ask around for ideas.  (She doesn’t give the source of that quote.)

In the O’Neill book we learn that former EPA Administrator Whitman was appalled to discover the president didn’t quite believe that global warming was occurring.

Neither do a lot of other people, who are in a position to know.  Like Lomborg. On the other hand, it is a lot warmer now, in July, than it was last December.  So maybe she has a point.

And, as the Union of Concerned Scientists noted, science is under threat by appointed Christian officials who hold the basic search for stem cells, dark energy, and our origins in disdain.

The UCS has its own problems.

“Search for stem cells”?  Not a good choice of phrase from someone whose expertise is in biology.  And I still see articles in physics and astronomy magazines about dark energy.

She wants to ask Bush and Kerry what they believe about the creation of the universe, whether there’s life on other planets, and what’s the meaning of life (“human existence”, in her words). People all over the world have been thinking of these things for quite a long time now – at least since Aristotle – and it will be a long time before we get much further along than we are now.

These might be excellent questions for an interview for Chairman of the Philosophy Department, but presidents of any country have to keep their feet more firmly planted on the Earth.

Continuing in that poetic vein, she asks,

Can you imagine a hegemon that made it possible for every single citizen of the world to simultaneously, and with a reasonably shared level of understanding, watch the Hubble’s latest view of the ancient universe?

No – we have dreamed of utopias ever since Thomas More, and on a worldwide scale are not much closer than we’ve ever been.

Getting back to their motto, “science is culture”, there’s very little of either in seed, unless by “culture” you understand two pages of photos of hip young brights at a gala event hosted by the advertisers.  Or if by “culture” you mean “enviro-savvy celebrities”, depicted in a “connectivity chart” with photos of: Cameron Diaz - starred in a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio - “champion of the environment”, founded something-or-other with Larry David- “Seinfeld” creator who drives a Prius, as do Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon (his photo is helpfully labeled “This is Tim”) - he costarred with Kevin Bacon - who serves on a board, appeared in a commercial, and is “connected with everybody”.

One of the few nods to science, and one of the few high points of the issue, is the centerfold: a four-page-wide pullout of the NASA/Hubble deep space image, coupled with a short poem by astronomer Rebecca Elson. (Poetry here, obituary here.)

It’s printed both sides, so you can turn it over every few days and see another view of galaxies unimaginably far away.

Since seed uses “science and culture” in its tagline, it invites comparison to wired. This is unfortunate, because Wired outshines it in every area.  Wired is no rubber-stamp for the administration, but they do have far more interesting content, a much better layout, and something noticelably absent from seed: a sense of humor.

posted by Mike 18:00