On the fallibility of memory

My favorite George Carlin line (“Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you have too much money”) is actually Chevy Chase’s line; he got it from Lorne Michaels. That’s so even though I clearly “remember” watching Carlin say it on TV. We send people to prison based on evidence no more reliable than that memory.

My post on Tom Ravanel’s indictment for conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute (short version: he was a party-giver, not a dealer) included the classic George Carlin line, “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you have too much money.” The quote, like Carlin himself, perfectly sums up the “greed is good” era of the early 1980s, to which we seem to be returning.

However …

A reader points out that the line has also been attributed to Richard Pryor (which makes sense to me) and Robin Williams (which doesn’t). But I remember Carlin delivering that line on TV; in my mind’s ear, I can hear it in his voice.

Still, since I’m a serious blogger, I didn’t just assert my infallibility; I did research. The first form of blogger research is, of course, Googling. (The second form is blegging. Then you give up.)

And yes, I found attributions to Pryor and Williams as well as Carlin. But I also found the transcript of a CNN interview with Tom Shales, co-author of Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.

SHALES: Pot-smoking was as common as drinking Pepsi or Coke. So I don’t consider that bad. And some people think it helps the creative juices flow.

Al Franken, one of their long-time writers and also often performer on the show, said he — the coke was used to stay awake, because Lorne Michaels imposed this insane structure on the show, which is basically key to his own circadian rhythm, which is, he likes to get up at 3:00 p.m., have breakfast and then go into work. And so they would work all night and still do sometimes, I think, work all Wednesday night, writing, all Tuesday night writing, writing, writing.

And Al said, “Well, I really just took coke to make sure nobody else took too much coke.”

ZAHN: Wow.

SHALES: Of course, Chevy’s immortal line, which is actually quoting Lorne, “Coke is God’s way of telling you, you have too much money.”

This story has, I think, at least four morals.

1. Famous Names Attract Famous Lines. A really witty phrase attributed to someone you never heard of is probably attributed correctly. But if it’s attributed to Lincoln or Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde or Winston Churchill or George Carlin it’s even money that someone remembered a funny line and attributed it to the Official Funny-Line Sayer of the relevant time period.

2. Listen to your readers. You might learn something.

3. Google is great. Often better than blegging, which is saying a lot.

4. Memory is a story-teller, not a video camera. I’d head the line; it made sense that the line was Carlin’s; I never saw Carlin live; therefore I must have seen Carlin say it on TV. Hey, presto! Memory.

What’s scary is that we send people to prison based on this stuff.

The common-law rules of evidence our courts still use regard the testimony of a witness to something that witness remembers as the fundamental form of evidence. In order to introduce a document or a photograph or a piece of physical evidence you need a witness to testify to its provenance. In order to introduce a scientific or technical principle you need an expert witness to give that item as an expert opinion; a textbook or a journal article doesn’t count as “evidence.”

By contrast, the civil-law (i.e., Code of Justinian/Code Napoleon) rules used in most of Europe regard documents as fundamental; if you want to introduce a witness, you need a document to show his identity.

Score this one for the civil law.

Silly season at the gas pump

Like most things, gasoline is bigger when warmer. Since the gas pump measures volume as you fill your car, you get less gasoline by weight, therefore less energy, when the gas is warm than when it’s cold. So far so good, but here the failure of high school science and economics education starts to send the story into never-never land, because grownups in congress and California are spending time, and writers for grownup newspapers are using ink, trees, and your attention, for some truly vacuous political theater.

Before this Emily Litella moment goes any further:

(1) The pump is a pump, not a tank. The tank is several feet underground, so the gas you pump into your car through the pump is neither hot on a hot day nor cold on a cold day. The first gallon probably warms up a little going through the a pump that’s been standing around in the sun, but where air temperatures vary over the year by 30C (54F), soil temperatures about four feet down, where the tank is, change about 15C. The volume change in gasoline over this range is less than 1.5%: in the depth of winter, you get 3/4% more for your money, and in the dog days, 3/4% less. (After the gas is in your tank, it expands or shrinks, but you don’t lose anything from this.)

[Distributors and refiners use temperature-compensated meters because their product is mostly stored above ground, in the sun, with a much wider temperature range, and because the cost of the compensating meter is spread over thousands of times as many dollars’ worth of gas.]

(2) This is about 40c each way on a typical fillup. People who resharpen razor blades have dozens of pennies to save by only buying gas at night, at stations under a nice dense tree cover.

(3) The proposal in the air is to add temperature compensation to every gas pump in America. Retailers will have to pay for these gadgets somehow ($2000 +/- per pump), and during the summer they will get maybe a penny less for each dollar’s worth they sell. Do we imagine prices will just stay the same, or that the next time prices change in the summer they will end up at three more cents per gallon than they would have without the compensation (and go down 3c in the winter)? To think prices won’t change to account for the correction, leaving you exactly where you are now miles-per-dollar-wise, you have to believe gas prices aren’t competitive (and there are lots of people anxious to sell you a gouging conspiracy already), and that government can somehow keep track of that extra three cents amid all the other ups and downs of retail prices and suppress it (and of course, require that it be tacked back on in the winter).

Doesn’t Dennis Kucinich have something more consequential to worry about? Assemblyman Davis? Cong. Cummings?

A half-intelligent design

Should ID be taught as part of the history of science? Yes and no.

British news item:

The Church of England’s new head of education, the Rev Jan Ainsworth, who is responsible for more than 4,600 C of E schools, said intelligent design could form part of discussions in science lessons under the heading of history of science.

She was swiftly disowned by her bosses, but that may just be prudence or cowardice. Anyway the suggestion is interesting. Would it offer a solution to the war on evolution in schools being waged between American scientists and religious fundamentalists?

Continue reading “A half-intelligent design”

Cell phones and cancer again

Last week I posted a note deploring sloppy and alarmist scientific journalism. My point was about the journalism, but along the way I indicated that the lack of a bump up in brain cancers while cell phone use has been exploding at least suggested a very minimal risk.

The science on this is still contradictory and changing, with responsible scientists finding (but mostly not finding) some association. [Like most scientific journals, these are behind paywalls that you can pierce only by going through a university or library computer system.] The risk is in any case small: typical numbers for the positive associations double the risk of cancers that affect about 5 in 100,000 people. On the other hand, a long latency period after exposure is typical of many cancers, and it may well take ten years for evidence to show itself.

Is a cell phone worth any risk of a deadly illness? Of course it is. How much risk? That depends on your own tastes and values. People who just can’t bear worrying about cancer will stop using their cell phones (or just use a wired earpiece (a wireless earpiece is itself a radio, though a really feeble one)); people who think this is a reasonable risk to bear for convenience will go right on chatting and both groups will be right.

Remember that the intensity of the radiation falls with the distance of the phone to you when you’re within one or two wavelengths (about six inches), so getting it from right up against your head to a pocket or a tabletop brings the risk way down [the inverse square law applies when you get further out, about three feet according to a reader, who also points out that the phone pumps out more RF in a weak signal area, so you can reduce risk by trying to talk mostly when you have lots of bars]. And most cancer seems to have a linear dose-response curve, so you can halve your risk just by using the phone half as much.

Finally, remember as the scientific papers zip past, that out of every twenty studies of situations in which A has absolutely nothing to do with B, one will show a statistically significant (p = .05) association. [corrected by a reader, thanks]

The go-to site for all issues of electromagnetic radiation health risks is here, and I’m pleased to note that it’s run by my first or second PhD student – I forget now – Louis Slesin. I think Louis’ overall judgment is that we’re not doing enough to reduce the hazards of non-ionizing radiation from electric power lines, cell phones, and all the other stuff that’s bathing us in these waves, but his site is a model of balanced and scientifically aware reporting. He will not lead you to flaky stuff from alchemists and kooks.

Bring back the OTA

As long as we’re looking for good and relatively easy ideas for the 110th Congress, here’s one of the easiest (and possibly one of the best); re-creation of the Office of Technology Assessment.

Although the official history, this description from the OTA’s website serves as an excellent description of its mission and accomplishments:

The Office of Technology Assessment occupied a unique role among the Congressional information agencies. Unlike the General Accounting Office, which is primarily concerned with evaluation of ongoing programs, and the Congressional Research Service, which provides rapid information on legislative topics, OTA provided a deeper, more comprehensive, and more technical level of analysis. Through eleven Congressional sessions, OTA became a key resource for Congressional members and staff confronting technological issues in crafting public policy. Its existence brought a healthy balance to the analytical resources available to the executive and legislative branches of government.

Why would Congress kill such a useful agency, especially one that took so few resources? It was the classic Republican pattern:

1) They found that they couldn’t really reduce the budget with anything big, so as a symbol, they killed something small without a powerful political constituency. Hurting the powerless, of course, stands as one of the core principles of the modern GOP governance philosophy.

2) The OTA stood for the objective use of science in policy, which of course was verboten, particularly to religious conservatives.

3) The OTA had this annoying tendency to reach conclusion that did not sit well with Republican contributors, particularly large energy interests.

One might also add that under the rubber-stamp Congress mentality post-Clinton, there was little reason to have any independent Congressional capacity to analyze policy: why in the world would anyone want to question the Dear Leader?

Bringing back the OTA would not be expensive; it would, however, be both good policy and good politics. It would demonstrate the Democrats’ commitment to an effective legislative branch that rejects faith-based policymaking. Rush Holt, the New Jersey congressman who is also an accomplished physicist (and who, if we are lucky, will be the next House Intelligence Committee chair), has a bill to do just that. It should be part of a comprehensive Democratic science agenda.

Chris Mooney’s invaluable blog mentioned this a few weeks ago, but it was somewhat buried. It shouldn’t be.

On (at last) reading Feyerarbend’s “Against Method”

As a more-or-less loyal Popperian, I’d always thought of Paul Feyerabend as being more or less in league with Satan, or at least with Derrida. But I’m finally getting around to reading his Against Method, and it’s a stunning accomplishment.

I’ve had a strong amateur interest in the philosophy of science since college days. Like most amateurs &#8212 and unlike most professionals &#8212 I have a natural affinity for Popper’s falsificationism as an account of the logic of what it means to be “science,” though after reading Kuhn I couldn’t deny its inadequacy as an historical explanation of how science grew, and grows. I can still recall my delight at first reading Conjectures and Refutations; whatever his merits or defects as a philospher, Popper’s prose is superb.

I’d read some of Feyerabend’s work, and (naturally, given my predilections) found him almost incomprehensibly perverse: an agent of Satan, or at least of Derrida. As a result, I’d never bothered to read his Against Method, until now.

Of course I’m in no position to check Feyerabend’s historical claims, and haven’t looked at what his opponents had to say. But it’s really quite a stunning essay, and quite convincing in places, especially in his discussion of Galileo and the Copernican Revolution.

That doesn’t make me any less distrustful of Feyerabend’s professedly “Dadaist” intentions; his plea for the “separation of science and state” still seems incomprehensible in a world where legislatures, officials, and judges need constantly to decide about matters of fact and prediction in situations where philosophic agnosticism provides no guide to present action. So I’m going to recommend that all my friends read Against Method, while praying that the Discovery Institute never finds it or grasps its polemical power.

Pluto and interplanetary liberation

If anyone still thinks science is an objective exercise exempt from political struggle, the debate over the status of Pluto and some other orbiting rocks should put it to rest. Only a hegemonic power drunk with its own illusion of importance would claim the authority to name and categorize autonomous, foreign planets with its self-serving schema of subordination and hierarchy. When have we seen a more naked display of Terraism than this assumption of rights over other worlds, peacably zooming around their own orbits, unless it’s our brazen disposal of used hardware under the most imperialist extraterritorial principles. Do we observe Martian parking and right of way rules, and pay fines? Do we have permits and file environmental impact reports when we drop junk on this or that planet…or even “stuff falling from the sky on you” impact reports? Do we get court orders to snoop on interplanetary or intergalactic electromagnetic signals? We do not, such is the arrogance bred by living on the only planet we haven’t given a used name, and the others are insulting to boot: Mercury? toxic. Venus? lascivious. Mars? playground bully…and so on.

Astronomy isn’t an inconsequential sideshow to the struggle for liberation and equal rights, it’s the furthest extension of the imperial hegemonic impulse. Let Ceres decide! Power to the orbiting masses, down to the least asteroid! No deplanetization without representation!

Are parachutes efficacious?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a medical intervention justified by observational data must be in want of verification through a randomised controlled trial.

A meta-analysis raises some doubts.

More research is needed. In the meantime, shouldn’t we stop spending millions of taxpayer dollars on a technology without a scrap of real evidence to support it?