Entries for August 2008

August 29, 2008

Hope and cynicism and Barack Obama

As readers of this blog know, I tend to follow politics fairly closely. I have done so for as long as I can remember. In Sri Lanka, politics was our national pastime and you could always strike up a good political discussion almost anywhere, and it was easy to become a political junkie.

As I have got older, my feelings about politics have become more ambivalent, a mixture of hope and cynicism. My hope has arisen from my increased awareness that most people seek justice and fairness at a very fundamental level and so I have always been in favor of efforts to increase participation. The more that ordinary people get involved in politics, the broader the participation, the more likely we are to have good results in the long run.

This does not mean that in the short run people will not make terrible decisions. We are, after all, the products of our history and upbringing and carry with us all kinds of relics of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other prejudices that will influence people in negative ways. Those factors can subvert the underlying drive for fairness.

While my sense of hope springs from a belief in the essential desire for fairness that people have, my cynicism comes from awareness that the structures of politics are designed to shut ordinary people out from any meaningful decision-making, reserving it for an elite and wealthy group that will serve its own interests, while preserving merely the façade of democracy. The way that is being done in the US is by making the election process so complicated and expensive, and the decision-making processes so obscure and arcane, that only those who have deep financial resources can hope to devote the time and energy to influence policies. These elite groups want to make change hard to achieve unless it serves their own interests, and they have largely succeeded.

But despite the odds, significant changes do occur and have occurred. We have seen the end of slavery, increasing rights for women, and major civil rights victories. We have seen the elimination of child labor, the right to unionize, the introduction of the 40-hour week, and more protections for the health and safety of workers. All these were important.

There are three major areas where I think we are on the verge of major changes for the better, although there are still obstacles facing us. These changes will come about irrespective of who gets elected to what position, though those elections can affect the speed of developments.

One is the fight for universal, single-payer health care. (For my previous posts on this, see here.) This will definitely come about fairly soon, though I do not know exactly when. The present system is too unfair, wasteful, corrupt, inefficient, exasperating, and infuriating to not collapse under its own contradictions. What both candidates are currently proposing are like plugging holes in a dike, short-term fixes to preserve the unseemly profits of the health insurance companies, pharmaceutical industry, and some health professionals. It will not last.

The second is equal rights for gays. This, I believe, will come very soon. The now routine and bland acceptance of gay people in most communities, the lack of controversy about gay marriage in Massachusetts, and the likely defeat of the anti-gay marriage referendum in California, are all signals that we are seeing the final gasp of homophobia.

The third is greater concern for the global environment and health. Those who think that we can treat our environment and ecosystem cavalierly are increasingly being seen as religious or free-market extremists.

Why do I think these things will happen, even though they are all currently opposed by entrenched influential and powerful groups? Because those issues are on the right side of history and such issues always win in the end.

As readers know, I do not expect much from Barack Obama as president. I expect him to be a cautious and centrist leader, careful not to rock the boat, someone who will follow the largely pro-war, pro-business agenda adopted by the current one-party/two-factions system. This is not necessarily a reflection on his personal beliefs. People from under-represented groups (such as women or minorities) who are the first to achieve prominent positions always carry the extra burden of having to prove their competence. Failure will not be interpreted as an individual thing (as is the case with that of a member from the majority group) but as their entire group members being incapable of the task. In order to not ruin things for those who follow them, such people become conventional, ultra-cautious, and risk-averse.

But at the same time, I expect Obama to be thoughtful and informed and intelligent in his decision-making, and much better than John McCain, who strikes me as a reckless and hot-headed warmonger in the Bush mold, completely under the baleful influence of the neoconservatives. Somehow I cannot see Obama doing anything rash or stupid or dangerous, the way McCain might. In fact, it will be a real relief to have a president who will act with the dignity that the office deserves.

The absurd charge that the Republicans are trying to make that Obama is 'elitist' is really a charge that he is too cerebral, and that what we need is someone who talks tough and makes decisions based on his 'gut', like the present incumbent, the worst president ever. We need to educate the public that it is not a weakness to take the advice of Carl Sagan who said, "I try not to think with my gut. Really, it's okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in."

Although I rarely watch highly scripted political events, I made it a point to watch Barack Obama's acceptance speech. It was a powerful one, extremely well delivered. I could appreciate the excellent craftsmanship that went into it and his rhetorical skill even as I disagreed with some points, especially concerning foreign policy.

There is no denying that in seeing a black person accepting the presidential nomination of a major party, something very significant was happening, a pivotal moment, and one that I am glad to have witnessed personally.

It aroused in me strong emotions similar to the ones I felt when Nelson Mandela was released from his South African prison in 1990, a sense that I was witnessing an important and uplifting moment in history. At that time, I had my daughters (then just 6 and 3 years old) sit on the sofa and watch with me, telling them I wanted them to be able to say later that they saw it, even though they did not understand the significance then.

All the major positive changes I described above had to be fought for and obtained against strong vested interests. But once achieved, such changes are irreversible. And Obama's nomination and, I hope, victory in November will be another major irreversible step in America putting behind its ugly racial history.

Come November I will be voting for Barack Obama but not because he is black. I will be voting for him because he is by far the better candidate of the two major parties.

But I will be taking extra pride in that vote because I will feel that I am contributing to a positive and irreversible change in history.

POST SCRIPT: Race in American politics

There is no doubt in my mind that this presidential campaign is going to be ugly with race forming an unpleasant subtext. Yesterday Terry Gross of Fresh Air had an excellent and thoughtful discussion with political scientist and author Mark Q. Sawyer who runs the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA, on the role of race in American politics with reference to Barack Obama's candidacy and what a tightrope he has to walk.

It is well worth listening to.

August 28, 2008

The politics of food-6: Corn and obesity

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The abundance of corn has made the economics of food shift towards unhealthier foods. If you have a limited budget, you can buy more calories based on corn-based fast-food products that you can from healthier foods. $1 buys 1,200 calories from potato chips and cookies vs. 250 calories from whole foods like carrots; 875 calories from soda vs. 170 calories from fruit juice from concentrate. (p. 108) Is it any wonder that poorer people, in order to feel satiated, are more likely to eat potato chips and follow it up with a soda than they are to eat carrots and follow it up with juice, since the cost of a calorie is five times as much for the latter meal?

In fact, an article published in the January 2004 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Dr. Adam Drewnowski (director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition in the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine) and Dr. S.E. Specter (research nutrition scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, Calif.) reports that the correlation of obesity with income levels is striking. Unlike in the developing world where obesity is often the result of wealthy people eating a lot of rich and fancy food, in the US, obesity afflicts a lot of poor people trying to save money on food.

The study says that:

Energy-dense foods not only provide more calories per unit weight, but can provide more empty calories per unit cost. These foods include French fries, soft drinks, candy, cookies, deep-fried meats and other fatty, sugary and salty items. The review shows that attempting to reduce food spending tends to drive families toward more refined grains, added sugars and added fats. Previous studies have shown that energy-dense foods may fail to trigger physiological satiety mechanisms – the internal signals that enough food has been consumed. These failed signals lead to overeating and overweight. Paradoxically, trying to save money on food may be a factor in the current obesity epidemic.

What are 'empty calories'? This Wikipedia article explains:

Empty calories, in casual dietary terminology, are calories present in high-energy foods with poor nutritional profiles, typically from processed carbohydrates or fats. An "empty calorie" has the same energy content of any other calorie but lacks accompanying micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, or amino acids as well as fiber as found in whole grains but less so in white flour. Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, coined the term in 1972.

Generally, unnecessary calories are converted in the body to fat. However, if calorie intake is limited for the sake of reducing weight, insufficient vitamin and mineral intake may lead to malnutrition. Dieticians recommend in every case that nutrient-dense food such as fruit and vegetables be substituted for empty-calorie food.

Drewnowski adds that the drive for lower costs is replacing nutrition-rich calories with empty calories:

It's a question of money. . . The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more. On a per calorie basis, diets composed of whole grains, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit are far more expensive than refined grains, added sugars and added fats. It's not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices, it's about being limited to those foods that you can afford.

As result of policies designed to produce more and more corn, corn has been on a silent and unseen rampage though our diet, resulting in a whole host of undesirable effects. The massive output of corn has led to the "rise of factory farms and the industrialization of our food, to the epidemic of obesity and prevalence of food poisoning in America." (p. 62) Since the explosive growth of corn production and cheap food containing mostly empty calories in the 1970s, obesity has risen since 1977 and the average American's food intake has risen by 10%. (p. 102)

Since what we eat ends up being the source material that goes into creating the tissues in our own bodies, it is now possible to analyze human hair to see how much of us originates in corn. It turns out that the US diet contains so much of corn in various hidden forms that our bodies are becoming increasingly made up of tissues that originated in corn. As Professor Todd Dawson (Director of the Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley) who has analyzed the corn component in food and in our bodies, says, "we North Americans look like corn chips with legs". We have a greater component of corn in our bodies than societies like Mexico that ostensibly seem eat more corn. (p. 23)

POST SCRIPT: Nuns beauty pageant cancelled

Two days ago, I reported on an Italian priest who had organized a beauty contest for nuns to show off their looks, and asked prospective contestants to send in photos.

He now says he has had to cancel his plans because of objections from his superiors in the church. I can't imagine why.

August 27, 2008

The politics of food-5: Tracking the corn in our food

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One of the surprising things I learned is that it is possible to track corn as it proceeds through the food chain, even as it is transformed into other things.

One thing that many people do not realize is the amount of a plant's weight that comes from the air. If you ask people where most of a plant or tree's mass comes from, they will likely say that it comes from the ground, absorbed through the roots. But most of a plant is carbon, and this carbon was initially in the air as carbon dioxide. During the photosynthesis process, plants absorb this carbon dioxide, retain the carbon, and release the oxygen back into the atmosphere. Some of the water the plant absorbs also comes from the water vapor in the air. Pollan says that in the case of corn, 97% of the plant comes from the air and only 3% from the ground. (p. 22)

Carbon atoms in the atmosphere contain two kinds (called isotopes) of carbon atoms: those containing a total of 12 protons and neutrons (called C-12) and a much rarer isotope that contains a total of 13 (C-13). The chemical properties of these two isotopes are almost identical so that they are usually equally likely to take part in the chemical and biological processes of life. But not always. It turns out that the photosynthesis process is one situation where they differ slightly and this enables us to distinguish the carbon in corn from the carbon in almost all other plants.

It turns out that most plants during photosynthesis create compounds that contain three carbon atoms. Such plants are called C-3 plants. But a very few plants (corn and sugar cane are examples) make compounds that contain four carbon atoms (C-4). It turns out that C-4 plants have a larger C-13/C-12 isotope ratio than C-3 plants, and this signature can be used to identify the amount of carbon in plants and animals that originate in corn (or sugar cane). Thus we can track the amount of corn-based carbon in our food. (p. 21)

The way corn has dominated our diet so that we have become a nation of corn eaters can be seen in how much of the carbon content of a typical McDonald's meal originates in corn: soda (100%), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%), and French fries (23%). (p. 117) Since one in five of all meals in America are eaten in the car (a number that I found to be disturbingly high), we can see how the corn in fast food is dominating our diet. (p. 110)

Perhaps the most telling marker of the power of corn has been the rise of the now ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup, which has become the sweetener found in almost all processed food. It is surprising to learn that high fructose corn syrup did not even exist until 1980 but now about 530 million bushels of the annual corn harvest is turned into 17.5 billion pounds of it. (p. 103)

But all this corn production and subsidies does not necessarily mean that corn farmers are raking in the dollars. It turns out that most of this money goes to the big agribusiness giants like Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) and Cargill, and food processors like Coca-Cola and Kellogg that turn the corn into finished products like high fructose corn syrup. For example, for every dollar consumers spend on eggs, 40 cents goes to the producer. But for every dollar spent on corn sweeteners, only 4 cents goes to the grower. ADM, Coca-Cola, and Kellogg get most of the rest. (p. 95)

So we have this situation where American farmers have incentives to grow as much corn as they can, while the government tries to keep the prices high, either by subsidies or by mandating the use of corn in fuels (in 2007, nearly 20% of the corn harvest went to ethanol), and food processors find ways to replace other ingredients in our food with corn-based products that can provide high profit margins.

Recently the price of corn has risen sharply but the relationship of the price of corn that the farmers get to the price we pay for food is not simple.

When there are cost shocks in the food production system due to changes in the commodity or farm product market, most retailers respond by passing on a fraction of their higher costs to consumers. Among factors affecting this pass-through rate is the level of processing and value-added services that take place between the farmgate and the grocery store aisle. Products that require more processing and packaging are usually less directly linked to changes in farm prices, while the price of less processed foods more closely follows the changes in farm prices. For example, changes in farm prices for eggs, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables show up in more volatile retail prices for these less processed foods.

What people may not realize is that most of the cost of the food we purchase has little to do with the actual food.

For example, an 18-ounce box of corn flakes contains about 12.9 ounces of milled field corn. When field corn is priced at $2.28 per bushel (the 20-year average), the actual value of corn represented in the box of corn flakes is about 3.3 cents (1 bushel = 56 pounds). (The remainder is packaging, processing, advertising, transportation, and other costs.) At $3.40 per bushel, the average price in 2007, the value is about 4.9 cents. The 49-percent increase in corn prices would be expected to raise the price of a box of corn flakes by about 1.6 cents, or 0.5 percent, assuming no other cost increases.

So despite the dominance of corn in the food chain, the price of almost all our foods are do not fluctuate as widely as the prices that farmers get for their corn.

POST SCRIPT: Darwin talk

David Quammen, author of the biography The Reluctant Mr. Darwin will be the featured speaker at CWRU's fall convocation at 4:30 pm in Severance Hall on Thursday, August 28, 2008.

The event is open to the public and more details can be obtained here.

August 26, 2008

The politics of food-4: The dominance of corn

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One of the things that I had not fully appreciated was how dominant corn is in our diet. Like most people, I am only rarely conscious of actually eating corn, usually during the summer months when it appears in the produce section of the supermarket or when I eat tacos. But it turns out that we all consume a vastly greater amount of corn than we perhaps realize. In fact, corn is the colossus in the American food chain, dominating everything.

To get a sense of the magnitude that corn plays in our lives, here are some numbers. The annual harvest of corn in the US is about ten billion bushels (p. 85). . One bushel of corn is defined to be 56 pounds exactly. This is for shelled corn, after the husks and cob have been removed. The number of kernels in a bushel is approximately 72,800.

The amount of corn we eat directly as corn is less than one bushel per year person or less than 3% of the total. The rest has gone into the production of beef, chicken, pork, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, snacks, citric and lactic acid, glucose, fructose, matodextrin, ethanol (for alcohol and for cars), sorbitol, mannitol, xanthan gum, MSG, etc. (p. 85, 86)

So how did we end up growing so much corn anyway?

Part of the growth in production came with the development of new hybrid seed varieties in the 1930s followed by the introduction of synthetic chemical fertilizers in the 1950s. Then in 1973 the government began establishing a 'target price' for corn that makes up as direct payments to the farmer for some of the difference between the target price and the sale price. The later explosive growth of corn is the direct result of this new system of farming subsidies that exists to this day and encourages farmers to grow more and more corn.

Instead of supporting farmers, the government was now subsidizing every bushel of corn a farmer could grow - and American farmers pushed to go flat out could grow a hell of a lot of corn . . . Iowa State University estimates it costs roughly $2.50 to grow a bushel of Iowa corn; in October 2005 Iowa grain elevators were paying $1.45 . . . Yet the corn keeps coming, more of it every year. (p. 53)
. . .
This is a system designed to keep production high and prices low. In fact, it's designed to drive prices even lower, since handing farmers deficiency payments (as compared to the previous system of providing loans to support prices) encourages them to produce as much corn as they possibly can, and then dump it all on the market no matter what the price – a practice that inevitably pushes prices even lower. (p. 62)

Corn production went from a 1920 average of 20 bushels/acre to a present output of 200 bushels/acre. (p. 37) This massive production increase now placed demands on finding ways to dispose of the corn. A human being can eat about 1,500 pounds of food per year in all its forms. (p. 94) You cannot force people to eat more food, let alone more corn. The only way to increase corn consumption is to use it to replace, directly or indirectly, other things in our diet, and even in our energy supplies.

Moving that mountain of cheap corn – finding the people and animals to consume it, the cars that burn it, the new products to absorb it, and the nations to import it - has become the principal task of the industrial food system, since the supply of corn vastly exceeds the demand. (p. 62)
. . .
To help dispose of the rising mountain of cheap corn farmers were now producing, the government did everything it could to help wean cattle off grass and onto corn, by subsidizing the building of feedlots (through tax breaks) and promoting a grading system based on marbling of beef that favored corn-fed over grass-fed beef. (The government also exempted CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] from most clean air and clean water laws.) (p. 200)

Thus the government and researchers have deliberately tried to switch the diet of cattle from grass, which they have evolved to eat, to corn, since animals can be made to grow faster on a corn diet than on grass and growing grass requires more land. As a result of this push, about 60% of the commodity corn produced in the US goes towards feeding livestock. (p. 86) Federal mandates have also pushed for corn surpluses in the form of ethanol to be used to dilute gasoline. (p. 111)

And yet, the corn keeps coming, more and more, like an overflowing dam that will eventually drown us.

Next: How corn dominates our diet.

POST SCRIPT: Beauty contest for nuns?

An Italian priest, annoyed by what he feels is the unfair negative image that nuns have, has organized a beauty contest to show off their looks and asked prospective contestants to send in photos.

But he says that they will not be required to pose in swimsuits. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

August 25, 2008

Why Darwin scares people

(The text of a talk given at CWRU's Share the Vision program on Friday, August 22, 2008 at 1:00 pm in Severance Hall. This annual program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on this year's common reading book selection The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen.)

Welcome to Case Western Reserve University!

You are fortunate that in your first year here you are going to part of a big year-long celebration, organized by this university, to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of his groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species.

In my opinion, Darwin is the greatest scientist of all time. You have no idea how hard it is for me to say that because I am a physicist and had long thought that the only competitors for that exalted title were Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. But the more that I have learned about the theory of evolution over the last decade, the more I have to concede that Darwin has had the most impact on our thinking.

As you have heard today, the Share the Vision program at Case is part of the university's commitment to create a welcoming and unifying environment for people from all backgrounds. Darwin's ideas should be warmly welcomed by those who share those goals because one important implication of his work is that all of us are biologically linked because we all share common ancestors.

If any two of you in this auditorium could trace your ancestors back in time, it will not be long before you find that you share a common ancestor. In fact, we would find that everyone who lives in the world now shares at least one common ancestor who lived only as far back as around 1500 AD. So around the time of Copernicus and the Renaissance, some one was walking around who is the common ancestor of each and every one of us.

If that doesn't boggle your mind, then listen to this. If you go back to just around 3,000 BC, of all the people who lived then, about 20% have no living descendents. Their lines died out. But the remaining 80% are the shared, common ancestors of all of us. Think about that for a minute. This is quite amazing. We are all, literally, part of one big family. We are all cousins under the skin.

It gets even better. If we go back even further, we find that we are cousins with all the nonhuman animals as well, and going back further still, with all the plants and even bacteria, all of us tracing our ancestors back to possibly a single ancestral organism. All of life that presently exists and ever existed is connected by this tree of life.

No wonder that Darwin was moved by this stupendous insight to end his book On the Origin of Species, by saying, "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

But, sadly, not everyone is as delighted as I am with the idea that worms are our cousins, and that we are both part of one big family with every organism that ever lived. Those who want to believe that humans possess some unique and special quality not possessed by other animals have found Darwin's idea deeply disturbing, and this is the source of much of the antagonism to him. Even the cautious Darwin himself, aware of this problem and the hostility it would arouse, only obliquely hinted at the linkage of humans to all other species in On the Origin of Species, leaving a full treatment to a subsequent book The Descent of Man published twelve years later.

Darwin's theory of natural selection and the tree of life is not only eminently plausible, but has been put on a rigorous mathematical footing and has abundant evidence in support of it. So why does the theory still arouse such strong opposition?

The superficial answer is that Darwin's theory goes against the religious belief that each species, and especially humans, were the result of a special act of creation by god. That idea seemed plausible at a time when it seemed obvious that every complex thing needed an even more complex designer to create it. But with Darwin, for the first time we had a scientific theory that showed how complex things could emerge from simpler things, without any outside intervention or agent or intelligence or design. Once the first primitive replicator, an early ancestor of DNA, had been created in the primeval soup, it multiplied and diverged, under the action of purely physical and algorithmic laws acting mindlessly, to eventually become the wide array of life we have now.

What is even more unnerving to some is that Darwin's theory reaches into every aspect of existence. As philosopher Daniel Dennett says, it is like an immensely powerful acid that once created cannot be contained by any boundaries because it can eat through any wall. People first tried to restrict it to nonhuman life but it broke through that barrier. They then tried to restrict it only to the human body but it broke through that too. Darwin's theory is now being applied to explain the origins of language and altruism and morality and other aspects of behavior, and to the workings of the brain and mind and consciousness.

Even intelligence, the feature that humanity prizes itself upon and which had been thought to be a precursor to creation, we now know occurred much later in life's evolution and came into being as a result of the same non-intelligent, undirected, natural selection mechanism that produced our arms and legs.

There seems to be no quality that we humans possess that could not have come into existence by the evolutionary processes described by Darwin and his successors.

Darwin's theory has extended even to what used to be considered purely philosophical questions. Paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson said that all attempts before the publication of On the Origin of Species to answer the question of what does it mean to be human were worthless and that we would be better off if we ignored them completely. Such is the significance of Darwin's work.

People who are wedded to the idea that human beings must possess some unique, non-material, and possibly divine quality, and that there must be some externally imposed purpose to their lives and the universe are highly uncomfortable by these developments. As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says, "People desperately want Darwin to be wrong . . . because natural selection implies there is no plan to the universe, including human nature."

But the fact that the theory of evolution causes unease for some is hardly grounds for its rejection. The test of validity of a scientific theory is not whether it is perfect or whether it explains everything or whether it makes us feel happy or satisfies some deep emotional need, but whether it works better than any of its competitors. And there is nothing that comes even close to replacing the neo-Darwinian synthesis as the explanation of life's diversity.

As you will have read in the book, Darwin was nervous about where his ideas were taking him, even though he was increasingly convinced that he was right. He knew that in science just having a good idea isn’t enough, however beautiful the idea is. You had to have evidence to support it and to that end he doggedly spent most of his life, observing, experimenting, and collecting data from all over the world, despite ill health and recurring headaches and vomiting attacks and personal tragedy.

Since his death, the evidence in favor of his theory has increased with other revolutionary discoveries like genes and DNA and continental drift and fossils. The evidence in support of Darwin's theory of natural selection and the resulting interconnectedness of all life now exists in abundance.

This has not stopped the critics though. But they have been reduced to merely trying to find problems as yet unsolved by the theory of evolution because no alternative theory has been able to produce the kinds of evidence necessary to be taken seriously as a competitor. But as Herbert Spencer pointed out as long ago as 1891, "Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all."

This year, you will all be able to be part of the Darwin celebration as eminent scientists, philosophers, and legal scholars from all over the world come to Case to discuss all the ramifications of his work. You have a unique opportunity to be part of that exciting year and I hope you take full advantage of it.

POST SCRIPT: Teaching evolution in high schools

Florida has just introduced evolution explicitly into its science standards. This story illustrates one teacher's efforts to teach it to his high school students.

August 22, 2008

The politics of food-3: Organic illusions

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One thing the book did was rob me of much of the illusions that I had about organic food production. Somehow, I had developed a romantic idea of organic food as being produced on multi-crop family farms with animals roaming freely. This pastoral idyll can still be found, but rarely.

While most such small farms are actually more productive than the big factory farms of the industrial food system, buying food from a large number of small suppliers is too cumbersome for the big organic food supply and marketing chains. Most organic food production, by virtue of its very success and subsequent growth, has been forced to adopt many of the undesirable features of the industrial food chain, such as its creation of a monoculture system and huge energy-intensive transportation networks. Giant organic chains like Whole Foods prefer to deal with a few suppliers to meet all their needs, rather than a large number of small organic family farms. Martha Rosenberg highlights some of the awful practices of factory farms including Whole Foods.

But that small family farm image is so appealing to consumers who purchase organic food that the industrial organic system fosters what Pollan calls the 'Supermarket Pastoral' narrative for its produce, encouraging customers by its labeling to think that the food they are buying comes from such places, so that they would be more willing to accommodate the higher price. He describes how the eggs he bought came from 'Judy's Family Farm'.

The Judy's label had always made me picture a little family farm, or maybe even a commune of back-to-the-land lesbians up in Sonoma. . . . Who could begrudge a farmer named Judy $3.59 for a dozen organic eggs she presumably has to get up at dawn each morning to gather? (p. 171)

The reality of organic farming is different from the pastoral narrative. It turns out that Judy is the name of the wife of the owner of Petaluma Poultry, a giant organic factory farm.

Pollan found that "some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms, where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced "dry lot," eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milk machines three times a day. The reason much of this milk is ultrapasteurized (a high heat process that damages its nutritional quality) is so that big companies like Horizon and Aurora can sell it over long distances. I discovered organic beef being raised in "organic feedlots" and organic high-fructose corn syrup." (p. 139)

What about the "free-range chickens" label, which gives the impression that the chickens spend their time clucking happily in grassy open spaces? Pollan found that these too are often grown in factory farms where in any given facility you might find about twenty thousand chickens in large sheds that, apart from eating certified organic feed, live lives almost identical to any industrial factory farm. What allows them to be called "free range" is merely the existence of a little door in the shed that leads to a small grassy yard. But since that door is open only from the time when the chickens are about six weeks old until they are slaughtered just two weeks later, and since most chickens do not take advantage of the door to take a stroll, the labeling hardly matches the image created. (p. 140)

The reason that the chickens are not allowed or encouraged to go outside is because of fears that they will get an infection that, because they are organic, cannot be treated with antibiotics, and this is part of the problem with trying to grow organic food within the framework of the large scale industrial production model.

Maintaining a single-species animal farm on an industrial scale isn't easy without pharmaceuticals and pesticides. Indeed, that's why these chemicals were invented in the first place, to keep shaky monocultures from collapsing. Sometimes the large-scale organic farmer looks like someone trying to practice industrial agriculture with one hand tied behind his back. (p. 221)

So while the industrial organic farms are undoubtedly better than their non-organic counterparts, the best solution to these unavoidable problems of both industrial models is the sustainable mixed farm that supplies food locally. Pollan argues that we should seek to buy our food from farms practicing such sustainable agriculture because it benefits all of us in many ways.

[T]here are good reasons to think a genuinely local agriculture will tend to be a more sustainable agriculture. For one thing, it is much less likely to rely on monoculture, the original sin from which almost every other problem of our food system flows. A farmer dependent on a local market will, perforce, need to grow a wide variety of things rather that specialize in the one or two plants of animals that the national market (organic or otherwise) would ask from him. (p. 258)

Until I read Pollan's book, I had not fully appreciated the negative aspects of monocultural farming. It arose with the use of chemical fertilizers on crops and new hybrid varieties that enabled farmers to get huge yields out of a single crop.

The extensive production and use of chemical agricultural fertilizers began right after World War II when the US found itself saddled with huge surpluses of ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient of explosives, and the factories to produce it. Shifting its use to crop fertilizer provided new uses for the product and a way to keep the production factories running. "The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government's effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes." (p. 41)

Next: How we all became walking corn chips

POST SCRIPT: Social Security

Many people have been frightened into thinking that Social Security is going bankrupt soon. This article from the Economic Policy Institute argues that these dire predictions are overblown and that young people have little to fear.

August 21, 2008

The politics of food-2: The benefits of sustainable farming

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The previous post examined the four kinds of food production systems in existence.

The sustainable farm model is easily the best one for animals, people, and the environment, and if widely adopted could have hugely beneficial effects on us all in many ways. But unfortunately it is very rarely found in practice. This is partly because the cost of the food produced this way is more (though not a lot more) than that produced by the industrial food chain. This discourages many consumers who have been conditioned to think of price as the determining factor when making food choices. In supermarkets, the only information we are usually given is the price, weight, and price per unit weight, not under what conditions the food was produced, so we have no basis for comparison other than price.

Another reason that such farms are not more widespread is that they cannot be scaled up easily to meet changing demands. In the industrial farm model, if the demand for eggs (say) goes up, one simply builds new coops, purchases more chickens and chicken feed, and thus produces more eggs. But sustainable farms, because of the interdependence of the various components, cannot simply change one of the components in the cycle. As a result, such farms tend to be smaller and cater to a limited number and geographical range of customers.

A third reason for the relative scarcity of sustainable farm practices is that because it supplies just a limited geographical range, the food it produces is largely seasonal and determined by the climate of that region. But we have become accustomed to treating as a right to have whatever food we want all year around, even if it involves having grapes in winter. This results in creating vast international transportation networks to airlift and truck huge quantities of food from place to place, which consumes huge amounts of energy resources.

The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do). Today it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate . . . All told, growing food organically uses about a third less fossil fuel than growing it conventionally . . . though that savings disappears if the compost is not produced on site nearby. (p. 183)

The claim can be made that the price of food produced by sustainable farm practices, although higher, reflects the actual cost of food. In the industrial food chain, the direct cost to the consumer is lower but there are uncalculated indirect costs to society due to the damage it does to the environment and to the health of the consumers. So what we save as individuals in the supermarkets, we pay collectively as a society in health and cleanup costs.

As sustainable farmer Joel Salatin says: "[W]ith our food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water – all of the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap." He says that the choice for consumers is simple: "You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food." (p. 243)

But there is another important reason that the kind of sustainable farming practiced by Salatin does not get much support. It does not feed an economic mindset that advocates consumption:

It isn't hard to see why there isn't much support for the sort of low-capital, thought-intensive farming Joel Salatin practices: He buys next to nothing. When a livestock farmer is willing to "practice complexity" – to choreograph the symbiosis of several different animals, each of which has been allowed to behave and eat as they evolved to - he will find he has little need for machinery, fertilizer, and, most strikingly, chemicals. He finds he has no sanitation problem or any of the diseases that result from raising a single animal in a crowded monoculture and then feeding it things it wasn't designed to eat. This is perhaps the greatest efficiency of a farm treated as a biological system: health.

I was struck by the fact that for Joel abjuring agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals is not so much a goal of his farming, as it so often is in organic agriculture, as it is an indication that his farm is functioning well. "In nature health is the default," he pointed out. "Most of the time pests and disease are just nature's way of telling the farmer he's doing something wrong." (p. 221)

For those of us who prize conservation, this lack of need for outside inputs is a good thing. But in our present society of warped values which urges people to consume more and more, a sustainable farm in which most of the input comes from the energy of the sun does not 'stimulate the economy'. All it does is produce healthy food and protect the environment, and 'the market' does not value such things.

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher on Larry King Live

Discussing politics and religion:

August 20, 2008

The politics of food-1: The four food production systems

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The series of posts on the ethics of food was triggered by a remarkable book that I recently read that caused me to re-think the whole question of my relationship to the food that I eat. Food was not something that I had thought much of before. I am not a gourmet by any means, and food for me is an incidental item in my life, not one that looms large.

But Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) has made me see food in a whole new light and raised some interesting new issues that I had not considered deeply before. It made me realize that what I choose to buy and eat is, whether I like it or not, a deeply political act and that I should pay more attention to it. The book gives a fascinating account of the role of food with all its full political, economic, and moral complexity. The next series of posts will examine some of these issues.

Pollan examines four different food supply systems. The first is what he calls the industrial food chain, which is the source of most of the food that is available in the developed world. This food is produced by large factory farms and distributed nationwide (and even worldwide) and is based on an assembly-line model. It seeks to produce large quantities of food at minimum direct cost to the producer, and considerations of the negative impacts on the environment, the health of the consumer, and animal welfare are of minimal concern, except insofar as it affects the image of the company and the profitability of the enterprise. It encourages monoculture farming, where each farm specializes in a single crop or product, and keeps its animals in cramped conditions in large pens called feedlots.

Then we have the organic food chain. Although it is definitely an improvement on the industrial food chain, a major part of it can better be described as the industrial organic food chain, since it very much resembles the industrial food chain in many of its features. The organic food supply chain is dominated by large companies like Whole Foods that have adopted the assembly line model of its non-organic sibling. Its main improvement, and it is a big one, is the absence of pesticide use on its crops and not giving growth hormones or antibiotics to its animals.

A third system described by Pollan is based on the forager model, where one lives off the land, eating only those plants that can be found growing wild in nature, only the fish that one catches oneself, and only meat from wild animals that one personally kills. Of course, this lifestyle is not feasible for most of us (I personally would not last in the wild for more than a couple of days) and this part of the book seemed like a romantic conceit on the part of the author, trying to recreate the experience of our hunter-gatherer past. It is not a viable model nowadays and I will not discuss it further.

The last model is the sustainable farming model, These farms are carefully planned, mixed systems, which grow a variety of crops and animals, and can best be described as creating a closed system whereby the 'waste' products of the plants that are grown (the parts that humans don't eat) are fed to animals and the 'waste' products of animals are fed into the soil as fertilizer, thus eliminating the waste problem and reducing the need for external inputs. (I will describe how this works in more detail later).

As a result, one has a cycle that very much resembles what occurs in nature. This contrasts with the largely monocultural industrial farm model (both organic and non-organic) where one has to obtain animal feed and fertilizer from outside to grow the food, and then find ways to dispose of the huge quantity of waste that is produced.

Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms . . . used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological lop – what in retrospect you might call a solution. One of the most striking things animal feedlots do (to paraphrase Wendell Berry) is to take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertilizer problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a waste problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all). (p. 67)

So given all these benefits, why are sustainable farming practices not more widespread?

POST SCRIPT: Sunday Morning Coming Down

The late, great Johnny Cash singing one of my favorite songs.

August 19, 2008

The South Ossetia/Kosovo parallel

The more accurate parallel for what is happening in South Ossetia is not Iraq but Kosovo.

But mention of Kosovo is largely absent from the current discussions because the parallel between what happened there and what is happening in South Ossetia undercuts the basis for the west's anger at Russia. So Kosovo must be made to disappear. As Aldous Huxley said, "Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth. By simply not mentioning certain subjects... totalitarian propagandists have influenced opinion much more effectively than they could have by the most eloquent denunciations." Justin Raimondo, in an essay that traces the origins and resurgence of Russophobia says that "Official censorship simply isn't necessary in the West, because everyone knows what to say – and, more importantly, what not to say.

John Pilger looks back at the propaganda that was used to justify the military action against Serbia by NATO forces.

Yugoslavia was a uniquely independent and multi-ethnic, if imperfect, federation that stood as a political and economic bridge in the Cold War. This was not acceptable to the expanding European Community, especially newly united Germany, which had begun a drive east to dominate its "natural market" in the Yugoslav provinces of Croatia and Slovenia. By the time the Europeans met at Maastricht in 1991, a secret deal had been struck; Germany recognized Croatia, and Yugoslavia was doomed. In Washington, the U.S. ensured that the struggling Yugoslav economy was denied World Bank loans and the defunct NATO was reinvented as an enforcer. At a 1999 Kosovo "peace" conference in France, the Serbs were told to accept occupation by NATO forces and a market economy, or be bombed into submission. It was the perfect precursor to the bloodbaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The warmongers in the Clinton administration (many of whom are now resurfacing in the Obama campaign and Democratic leadership and trying to pretend they are antiwar) were the ones who, along with NATO and the European Union, destroyed Yugoslavia with a merciless bombing campaign that killed and displaced thousands of people and led to the carving out of Kosovo as a separate state.

George Friedman, the head of Stratfor, a private intelligence company, explains on NPR why Russia's use of force to separate South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia can be justified by them using the same arguments used by NATO to separate the province of Kosovo from Serbia, which was trumpeted by then President Clinton and the western media as the moral thing to do.

In February 2008 George Szamuely described in detail the way that Kosovo was carved out as a separate state, and said that Russia had warned where this was leading.

Unlike 2003, however, the Russians this time have a card up their sleeves. If Kosovo is to be permitted to secede, the Russians have argued, then why not other nationalities or ethnic groups living as minorities within someone else's state? As examples, President Vladimir Putin pointed to South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. But he could have mentioned innumerable others: the Hungarians in Slovakia and Rumania, the Basques and Catalans in Spain, Corsicans in France, the Flemish in Belgium, Russians in Estonia and Latvia, the Turkish Cypriots.
. . .
The West's entire approach to Kosovo has been marked by sordid dishonesty and bad faith, supporting national self-determination and the right to secession in one place and territorial integrity in another, cheering on ethnic cleansing by one ethnic group and demanding war crimes trials for another, trumpeting the virtues of majority rule when it's convenient to do so and threatening to impose sanctions and penalties on majorities when that's convenient.

Paul Craig Roberts argues that the warmongers in the US are urging that the US make a strong response to Russia's actions (i.e., use force) although it is obvious to the rest of the world that the US simply no longer has the military, diplomatic, economic, or moral power to do any such thing. All it can do is bluster.

(As a digression, I came across the truly excellent news website, an indispensable source for world news and analysis, during the campaign for the NATO war against Serbia. I was disgusted with the cheerleading for that war and tried to find more balanced news sources and came across the site which was started in 1995 to oppose that Clinton war. Since then, has been consistently trying to expose the propaganda of both Democratic and Republican warmongers. The people behind the site can briefly be described as principled libertarian-paleoconservatives and they are refreshingly open to a spectrum of views across the ideological spectrum. The site is currently holding a fundraiser. Please donate something if you can.)

POST SCRIPT: Escape clauses

It is left to the comedy shows to highlight the verbal contortions currently on display in the US response to the conflict in South Ossetia as a result of trying to find an argument that condemns the Russian action while not automatically condemning similar US actions.

The Daily Show has a clip of US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad trying to dance the dance. He says that "The days of overthrowing leaders by military means in Europe, those days are gone."

So that's why the invasion of Iraq by the US is good and the invasion of Georgia by Russia is bad. It depends on where it happens.

But then what about Kosovo? That was in Europe. But since that was in the 1990s, a formula has been found: What is wrong is invading other countries in Europe in the 21st century. Yes, that it.

But John McCain, gung-ho supporter of the Iraq invasion, tends to get confused and forgot to add the vital in Europe clause, saying stupidly that "In the 21st century nations don't invade other nations."

The fact that Bush, Rice, McCain, and the neoconservative and other warmongers are not ridiculed for these obviously contradictory and self-serving justifications is a telling indication of the subservience of the mainstream media to the government line.

August 18, 2008

The conflict in South Ossetia

The coverage of the conflict between Russia and Georgia over the region known as South Ossetia reveals once again the reflexive adoption by the US media of the perspective of the US government and its pro-war supporters in its reporting of the events.

Having completely abandoned any semblance of allegiance to principles of international law and morality in its invasion of Iraq, the US government is now scrambling to find a basis to condemn Russia's military actions while excusing its own similar actions. In this they are aided by the collective and convenient amnesia of reporters who obligingly don't ask awkward questions about obvious historic parallels.

It is not necessarily the case that journalists are deliberately and knowingly distorting the facts, although some do. What is the case is that they have internalized the tacit understanding that all foreign policy issues have to be understood in such a way that the US government's actions are viewed as good and those of the enemy country are bad. Once you have accepted that framing, it requires you to view the US government as at most guilty of 'mistakes' or 'bad tactics' or even incompetence, but never of bad intentions. Bad intentions are the exclusive domain of whoever the enemy du jour is. To think and say otherwise is to commit career suicide, as far as the mainstream media goes. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

The task of exposing this hypocrisy is left largely to the alternative media and comedians. As Robert Parry points out:

Apparently, context is everything. So, the United States attacking Grenada or Nicaragua or Panama or Iraq or Serbia is justified even if the reasons sometimes don't hold water or don't hold up before the United Nations, The Hague or other institutions of international law.

However, when Russia attacks Georgia in a border dispute over Georgia's determination to throttle secession movements in two semi-autonomous regions, everyone must agree that Georgia's sovereignty is sacrosanct and Russia must be condemned.

U.S. newspapers, such as the New York Times, see nothing risible about publishing a statement from President George W. Bush declaring that "Georgia is a sovereign nation and its territorial integrity must be respected."

No one points out that Bush should have zero standing enunciating such a principle. Iraq also was a sovereign nation, but Bush invaded it under false pretenses, demolished its army, overthrew its government and then conducted a lengthy military occupation resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
. . .
On Monday, the Washington Post's neoconservative editorial writers published their own editorial excoriating Russia, along with two op-eds, one by neocon theorist Robert Kagan and another co-authored by Bill Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke.

All three – the Post editorial board, Kagan and Holbrooke – were gung-ho for invading Iraq, but now find the idea of Russia attacking the sovereign nation of Georgia inexcusable, even if Georgia's leaders in Tblisi may have provoked the conflict with an offensive against separatists in South Ossetia along the Russian border.

"Whatever mistakes Tblisi has made, they cannot justify Russia's actions," Holbrooke and his co-author Ronald D. Asmus wrote. "Moscow has invaded a neighbor, an illegal act of aggression that violates the U.N. Charter and fundamental principles of cooperation and security in Europe."

As far as most of the world is concerned, the US has lost all credibility when it comes to appealing to international law. They have not forgotten all the lies that have justified past US military invasions. In fact, those policies have encouraged the emergence of a lawless world in which any regional power can feel comfortable asserting its will militarily over its neighbors.

This article that appeared in the Russian newspaper Pravda illustrates the contempt in which Bush is held. It repeatedly tells Bush to 'shut up', language which the US media gleefully approved of when Spain's King Juan Carlos used it against current US enemy Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. The article justifies the Russian actions in South Ossetia using almost the exact words used to justify the US invasion of Iraq:

Do you really think anyone gives any importance whatsoever to your words after 8 years of your criminal and murderous regime and policies? Do you really believe you have any moral ground whatsoever and do you really imagine there is a single human being anywhere on this planet who does not stick up his middle finger every time you appear on a TV screen?
. . .
Do you really believe you have the right to give any opinion or advice after Abu Ghraib? After Guantanamo? After the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens? After the torture by CIA operatives?
. . .
Suppose Russia for instance declares that Georgia has weapons of mass destruction? And that Russia knows where these WMD are, namely in Tblisi and Poti and north, south, east and west of there? And that it must be true because there is "magnificent foreign intelligence" such as satellite photos of milk powder factories and baby cereals producing chemical weapons and which are currently being "driven around the country in vehicles"? Suppose Russia declares for instance that "Saakashvili stiffed the world" and it is "time for regime change"?

This is what we can expect to see in the future – the US government's own words and actions flung back at it by every country that decides to take military action against another or abuses its prisoners or kills civilians.

Next: The South Ossetia/Kosovo parallel

POST SCRIPT: Al Jazeera coverage of South Ossetia

Al Jazeera has a interview with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvli that lasts for 15 minutes followed by four minutes of good analysis by their correspondent in Tblisi

August 15, 2008

Food fads

I find it a little odd the fascination that many people have with food.

I know people who watch the cooking shows on TV with almost a religious fervor. Diet books abound. People eagerly seize on the latest ideas about what may be good for your health and what may be bad and make wholesale changes in their diets based on news reports.

Ben Goldacre, writing in London's The Guardian jokes that there seems to be a drive to divide everything in the world into two classes: those that cause cancer and those that cure cancer.

In pursuit of this goal, the 'science' reporters in newspapers and magazines seize on the most tenuous and dubious links coming out of research laboratories and draw sweeping conclusions that may actually harm people. We have become prey to all manner of pseudo-experts on food.

Goldacre reports on the red wine-breast cancer link that recently made news:

The story follows a standard template which they clearly now teach as valid in all journalism schools: a food contains a chemical, the chemical does something in a dish on a lab bench, therefore the food kills cancer in people. Or rather, red wine contains resveratrol: this chemical has been found to increase the activity of an enzyme called quinone reductase, which converts a derivative of oestrogen back to oestrogen, and that derivative can damage DNA, and damaging DNA causes mutations, and mutations cause cancer, so therefore, in the world of journalists, red wine prevents breast cancer in people.

This is a phenomena we might call "data mist": where someone gets one piece of research information lodged in their imagination and suddenly, for them, it explains the entirety of medicine.

In reality, though, meta-analyses show that "overall, half a glass of red wine a day increases your risk of breast cancer by 10%. If their figures are correct, alcohol causes about 6% of all breast cancer in the UK, meaning 2,500 cases a year." (emphasis added)

There is no question that people who try to keep up with food news are perplexed. Quick: which of the following foods are good/bad for you: butter, eggs, sugar, salt, chocolate, wine? In truth, all of them have had their ups and downs and I personally have no idea what their present status is. And I don't care.

I share Michael Pollan's wonderment, expressed in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), about the way food has become a major source of anxiety in the US.

As a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may have once possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety. Somehow this most elemental of activities – figuring out what to eat – has come to require a remarkable amount of expert help. How did we ever get to the point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu? (p. 1)

America seems to lurch from one food fad to another, one day avoiding all beef, and the next day all carbohydrates. The swings are so violent that they can result in huge changes in the marketplace of foods, causing some businesses to even go bankrupt. Words like 'antioxidants' and 'transfats', which were unknown except to scientists just a couple of years ago, are now household words even though most people don't know anything about them except for the simple equations 'antioxidants=good' and 'tranfats=bad'. Watch for the word polyphenols to achieve similar stardom very soon.

Pollan thinks that such wild swings are a sign of a national eating disorder.

Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating. But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august legislative body to ever deliberate the nation's "dietary goals" – or, for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise design of an official government graphic called the "food pyramid." A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January. . . . It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines.
. . .
Nor would such a culture be shocked to discover that there are other countries, such as Italy and France, that decide their dinner questions on the basis of such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure and tradition, eat all manner of "unhealthy" foods, and, lo and behold, wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating than we are. (p. 2,3)

Pollan speaks of the 'American paradox': a notably unhealthy people obsessed with the idea of eating healthily.

I myself long ago decided to pay only a passing interest to reports about what kind of food is good for you or bad for you. All I ask is that my food not be messed with by the addition of hormones, antibiotics and high levels of processing. I figure that as long as I eat moderate amounts of a balanced diet of minimally-processed foods that have been around and eaten for a long time, I should be ok. What did not kill off my evolutionary ancestors should be fine for me. Oh, and the food should be tasty too.

Could I increase my life expectancy by a scientific monitoring of my food intake? Possibly. But it would not be worth it for me. I eat whatever I like and enjoy my food.

POST SCRIPT: The unbearable lightness of Cokie Roberts

I find it amazing that NPR continues to have Cokie Roberts as an analyst. I cringe whenever she comes on and spouts her poll-based drivel and conventional wisdom. When did she last say anything that was even remotely insightful? She is one of those annoying people who constantly speaks, without any evidence, about what "the American people" want or think, which somehow always seems to be exactly what she and her coterie of Washington insiders think they should want or think.

Eric Alterman, writing back in 2002, described her best: "With no discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and frequently no clue . . . a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by any collision with messy reality."

August 14, 2008

The etiquette of food

After grappling with some heavy moral issues involving the treatment of animals and the eating of meat, I want to look at a related but lighter topic: the etiquette of food restrictions in the host-guest relationship.

Sometimes I wonder if we have gone too far in being accommodating of people's food restrictions, to the extent of creating a sense of entitlement. As someone who organizes meal-based meetings at work where I feel obliged to ask people in advance what restrictions they have, I am sometimes surprised by the specificity of some requests ("I would like wraps", "I would like fresh fruits and vegetables", etc.).

This raises an interesting question that I have been thinking about: How far we should go as both guests and hosts in specifying and meeting dietary restrictions or preferences?

Michael Pollan says in The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) that during the time he was a vegetarian, he felt that he had in a subtle way become alienated from other people.

Other people now have to accommodate me, and I find this uncomfortable: My new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship. As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don't eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she'll make something special for me, in which case I'll feel bad. (p. 314)

Whenever we invite people to our home for a meal or as house guests, we always ask them whether they have any dietary restrictions. We get the usual spectrum of requests: no pork, no beef, or vegetarian. But there are more severe restrictions that we have not had to deal with as yet: vegan, strict kosher, no wheat products, allergies to specific foods such as peanuts, salt or sugar free diets, etc.

These restrictions can be split onto four classes: Those that are based on medical reasons, those that are based on religious reasons, those that are based on political/ethical/moral/environmental reasons, and those that are based on personal preferences. The etiquette question is this: which, if any, of these categories of restrictions is it appropriate for a guest to request accommodations and which ones should a host be obliged to meet?

As a host, I feel obliged to ask people what restrictions they have and try to accommodate them, irrespective of the class of restrictions to which it belongs. But I realize that I am laying myself wide open to a potentially awkward situation. Suppose someone says that they have some restriction that would require very elaborate and unfamiliar food preparation on my part. What should I do? Go to extraordinary lengths to meet them, such as preparing a separate meal? At what point does a food request become so onerous that I can feel comfortable declining to meet it?

Similarly, from the point of view of a guest, what is a reasonable request to make of a host to accommodate your preferences? Should people who have very specific and restrictive needs simply decline invitations because they feel that they are imposing too heavy a burden on their host?

Pollan says that, "On this matter I'm inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners."

Perhaps this is the way we should go. Hosts should stop asking guests what restrictions they have and prepare whatever the host wants. Guests who choose to attend should decline their host's offer to specify dietary limitations, and simply eat and drink what they can from whatever is offered, even if it ends up being just some vegetables and fruit and water. And neither party should feel offended or put out.

(Of course, this suggestion only applies to single-meal events. The situation with houseguests who are staying for some time is different and then some accommodations must be made.)

Some might feel that it is easy for me to advocate this policy since I am an omnivore and thus can eat anything, and that I might view this differently if I were someone who had strong food restrictions and might be faced with having a very restricted choice of food items to eat at a dinner party.

But I have had to deal with something roughly equivalent. In Sri Lanka, dinner parties would often start late, say around 9:00 pm, and they would sometimes serve dinner close to midnight. (Unlike in America where the meal forms either the beginning or the middle of an evening of conversation, in Sri Lanka the end of the meal often signifies the end of the party.) Although I get very hungry by that late hour, I did not tell the host that I would like my own dinner to be served early. Instead, if I suspected dinner would be served late, I got in the habit of eating at home before going for the party. That way, I did not care when the meal was served or even what was served. I simply ate what I felt like from whatever was offered whenever it was offered.

Those who have dietary restrictions or preferences that will likely result in them not being able to eat much from what is offered might consider doing the same thing.

These kinds of etiquette issues may have arisen because we have forgotten that the only reason to accept an invitation to someone else's home is to enjoy their company and the company of their other guests, not to treat their home as a restaurant to obtain food that is acceptable to you. The refreshments on offer should not be a consideration.

I wonder how Miss Manners might respond to this question.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting graphic designs

How to tell if you are in the right place. (Thanks to Progressive Review.)

August 13, 2008

The ethics of food-10: Minimizing suffering

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

The theory of evolution says that we are all connected in the tree of life. So humans are not only related to apes and other animals, we are also related to plants and even to the 'lowly' fungi. But no one is arguing that therefore we should stop eating vegetables too.

Clearly to survive we have to draw at least some lines as to what species we include within our moral community and what species we exclude. Such lines are necessarily arbitrary but need not be without some justification.

If we are going to use suffering as the measure of whether we are justified in killing and eating animals, then that implies that sentience is a key marker. But what level of sentience? Peter Singer and other animal rights philosophers argue that some level of sophistication of the nervous system is necessary to include the species within our moral compass. They draw the line at the nervous system of scallops, so that anything with an equal or more primitive nervous system than a scallop can be eaten.

Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) points out that a purely vegetarian diet does not solve the problem of killing animals.

Killing animals is probably unavoidable no matter what we choose to eat. If America were suddenly to adopt a strictly vegetarian diet, it isn't at all clear that the total number of animals killed each year would necessarily decline, since to feed everyone animal pasture and rangeland would have to give way to more intensively cultivated row crops. (p. 326)

From this he draws a surprising conclusion:

If our goal is to kill as few animals as possible people should try to eat the largest possible animal that can live on the least cultivated land: grass-finished steaks for everyone.
. . .
Indeed, it is doubtful that you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature – rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls – then eating animals may be the most ethical thing to do. (p. 326)

It is undoubtedly true that in the competition for land, food, water, and other resources to maintain life, humans are unavoidably, even if indirectly, causing the death of other animals, whether we eat them or not, and even causing damage to the planet as a whole. (There is a group called The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement that argues that to reduce suffering and for the health of the planet, humans should choose to not have any more children and thus eventually become extinct.)

While the above arguments can be used by meat eaters to justify their continued practice, we should be wary of being too easily persuaded by them. It is always the case that people can usually come up with reasons to justify whatever we want to do, and meat eaters are no exception, especially since the desire to eat meat is so strong. Benjamin Franklin pointed out that "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

Singer cautions that it is hard for meat eaters to really understand the case against eating animals. He warns that we meat eaters cannot really be objective about this question because of the strong rationalization tendencies that come into play. "We have a strong interest in convincing others that our concern for other animals does not require us to stop eating them. . . . No one in the habit of eating an animal can be completely without bias in judging whether the conditions in which that animal is reared cause suffering." (Pollan, p. 313)

Singer's argument about the danger of self-deception impressed writer Pollan so much that he became a vegetarian while studying this question so as to try and increase his objectivity. He reverted to eating meat afterwards, though. (As was pointed out by commenter Dave to an earlier post, those who decide to adopt a vegan, or even vegetarian, diet need to find ways to supplement their diet with the essential vitamin B12, which is normally obtained only from meat and dairy products.)

Wherever one finds oneself in the debate of whether it is ethical to eat meat or not, I think that we can probably all agree that animals should be treated well while they are alive and that if they are to be put to death for whatever reason, it should be done in as humane way as possible in order to minimize suffering.

But it is clear that even this very limited goal is not being met. Our present industrial-scale food production system (more on this later) not only treats animals extremely cruelly, it pollutes the environment, destroys the soil, and poisons everything.

When I was very young and passing through my phase of infatuation with all things cowboy, my parents gave me an air rifle for my birthday. Excited, I wandered through my aunt's backyard in northern Sri Lanka, shooting and missing at all kinds of targets, while imagining myself as one of my cowboy heroes. Seeing a crow in a tree, I aimed and fired, never dreaming that I would hit it. To my surprise, the bird dropped like a stone, dead. Soon after, the sky was filled with other crows making a terrific racket, which I took to be them rebuking me for this wanton act of destruction. My horror at the experience of having personally killed an animal and causing what seemed like great grief to other birds resulted in my only shooting at inanimate targets in the future.

There is a person who works for the maintenance department at my university who once a year gets a license to hunt deer and spends a weekend in the woods to shoot an animal. He has described his experiences to me. There was a time when my childhood experience with killing an animal would have resulted in me considering this a blot on the character of an otherwise decent person, treating him as the equivalent of the killer of Bambi's mother. But now I realize that by buying meat that is produced by the industrial farming production system, I am guilty of more inhumane behavior than he is, because the animal he kills and eats has likely lived a far better life than the ones that I buy from the supermarket freezers.

POST SCRIPT: Free screening of award-winning documentary Peaceable Kingdom

"Peaceable Kingdom is an inspiring story of personal redemption, compassion, healing and hope. Propelled by the eloquent testimony of animal farmers questioning the fundamental assumptions behind their way of life, Peaceable Kingdom gives a riveting portrayal of human and animal lives caught in an out-of-control industrial machine."

You can see a preview here.

“Peaceable Kingdom is a masterpiece.” ~ Dr. Jane Goodall

Where: Talkies Film & Coffee Bar, 2521 Market Avenue in the Ohio City neighborhood in Cleveland (across from Great Lakes Brewing Co.)

When: Friday, August 15, 2008, 6:00 p.m.

For more info about this screening, contact Sunny Simon at 216-291-8773.

For some reason, the film is not showing on the Talkies website but Sunny Simon assures me that the event will take place.

(Thanks to commenter Mary for this information)

August 12, 2008

The ethics of food-9: Does a good life compensate for an early death?

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In trying to arrive at some ethical consensus on how humans should treat nonhuman animals, I think we might all agree on a minimal condition: that once born, every animal deserves to have a good life while they are living. So that means that the inhumane treatment of animals that currently takes place in the industrial farming system in the US and other developed countries cannot be justified under any circumstances. Those animals are kept in cramped, feces-filled conditions, force-fed with food that their systems are not designed to digest, and treated with drugs to combat the problems arising from an inappropriate diet and awful conditions. The very fact that such places are hidden from public view and guarded to prevent observers entering is a telling indication that those animals are being treated badly.

But if we did have cows and pigs and chicken raised in healthy natural environments where their interests are met while living, would that justify them being killed and eaten, if the alternative is that they never lived at all? In his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan describes the way that animals are reared at Joel Salatin's Polyface Farms in Virginia where the animals are raised in as good conditions as any farm animals could be. He said his experience threw the argument for eating animals into a new light.

To many animal people even Polyface Farm is a "death camp" – a way station for doomed animals awaiting their date with the executioner. But to look at the lives of these animals is to see this holocaust analogy for the sentimental conceit it really is. In the same way we can probably recognize animal suffering when we see it, animal happiness is unmistakable, too, and during my week on the farm I saw it in abundance. (p. 319)

In fact, it is likely the case that the death that these animals experience in such farms is far more humane than what they might experience naturally in the wild. The philosophical father of animal rights and utilitarianism philosophy founder Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who was himself a meat eater, said that a happy life and merciful death can be used to justify meat eating since "The death they suffer in our hands commonly is, and always may be, speedier and, by that means a less painful one, than that which would await them in the inevitable course of nature." (p. 328)

Since utilitarians like Bentham and Singer focus on increasing net happiness and reducing net suffering, and since the slaughter of an animal with no comprehension of death need not entail suffering, Singer tells Pollan that "I agree with you that it is better for these animals to have lived and died than not to have lived at all . . . I would not be sufficiently confident of my argument to condemn someone who purchased meat from one of these farms." (p. 327) The problem, he points out, is that farms like Salatin's form an infinitesimally small part of the nation's food production system, which is dominated by the inhumane methods of the industrial farms run by agribusiness.

Not all animal rights philosophers will agree with Singer's concession on this. Some animal rights advocates argue that the extinctions of domesticated species that would likely result from everyone ceasing to eat meat are in fact a desirable result, since these animals exist simply to be eventually eaten by others. There are some, like animal rights philosopher Tom Regan, who feel that we should always focus on the well being of the individual members of a species and not on the species as a whole and that the right to life of individual animals cannot be bargained away on utilitarian grounds.

In other words, once born, the right to life trumps all other considerations.

The ultimate test, again, is whether we would apply the same consideration to human interests that we apply to animal interests. For the sake of avoiding the charge of speciesism, would we humans also be willing to accept a healthy and happy and carefree life in exchange for a painless death at a definite time?

Thinking about these arguments made me recall Aldous Huxley's futuristic novel Brave New World (1932) where, thanks to advances in medical science, people in the future have the looks and full unimpaired capacities of youth until they reach the age of sixty. They then die abruptly.

I wonder how people would respond if they were offered such a deal at the age of (say) twenty. Would they accept it? Would they want to negotiate a higher age of death? Or would they find that the very idea of a certain date of death is too high a price to pay, however good a life is offered in exchange?

POST SCRIPT: The conflict in South Ossetia

Out of the blue, there is suddenly a major conflict going on between Russia and Georgia. As usual, it is almost impossible to find in the US media any explanation of the history of the conflict and the proximate cause of the flare up that is not highly colored by the anti-Russian/pro-Georgian sentiment of the US government.

Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College London and a senior Fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC, gives a fairly concise account. In 1990-96 he was a correspondent for The Times in the former Soviet Union, including Georgia.

This conflict bears a lot of similarities to the one over Kashmir between India and Pakistan and, like that, could go on for years.

August 11, 2008

The ethics of food-8: Interests of species versus interests of individuals

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

I wrote before that the theory of evolution, by giving all animals equal standing in the evolutionary tree of life, provides a strong argument against the exploitation of one sentient species by another. There seems to be no defensible criteria by which we can prefer the interests of an individual human over that of an individual nonhuman animal, because they each have an interest in avoiding pain and suffering.

This seems to imply that killing animals in order to obtain meat for eating is wrong under all circumstances. But in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan suggests that this need not necessarily follow.

The argument is a tricky one that involves disentangling the interests of a species from the interests of individual members of the species. Recall that it was argued that we could not and should not give preferential treatment to our species as a whole over other species as a whole because whatever marker we might use for doing so (intelligence, language, consciousness, etc.), we would find at least some individual members of our species who had less of that quality than some members of other species.

But if we keep the argument at the level of species, a case can be made for eating meat.

One argument says that if the human species as a whole possesses some significant quality (say intelligence or consciousness) that other species either do not possess or possess at a lower level, that entitles all members of the human species privileged treatment, even those who may possess less of that particular quality than some members of other species. In other words, this argument rejects entirely the premise of the argument from marginal cases. But this line of argument has significant consequences if applied within the human species. If, for example, we discovered some important quality that (say) females possessed on average more than males, would we then be willing to privilege all women over all men?

Another argument says that being domesticated for the purpose of being eaten or otherwise exploited by humans has benefited such species of animals. The domesticated species we eat (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) would most likely become extinct if we ceased to eat them. After all, the reason that their numbers are much greater than their wild cousins is because they have benefited from the protection that humans have given them. At some point in evolutionary history, these animals showed signs of being amenable to living alongside humans, adapted to doing so, and as a result they have experienced an explosive growth in numbers.

"[D]omestication took place when a handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk, eggs, and – yes – their flesh." (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, p. 320) This language is somewhat misleading in that it implies that both sides were equal and conscious partners to this deal and that the animals voluntarily submitted. In fact, it is humans who unilaterally set the terms.

But as a result of this 'bargain', it is undoubtedly true that many of the animals we don't eat like wolves, lions, and tigers are in danger of extinction, while dogs, cows, chickens, and pigs have flourished, at least in numbers. If we all became vegans and released domesticated animals into the wild, the numbers of these domesticated species would dramatically decrease and may even perish entirely within just a few generations.

The problem here is how to decide between what is good (at least numerically) for (say) the species of chicken (which favors domestication and the consequent meat eating) and what is good for an individual chicken (which clearly has an interest in not being eaten). The issue is further complicated by the question of whether the individual chicken has an interest in being born at all, if the price for that opportunity is to be killed and eaten later.

Answering such questions involve difficult, even impossible, metaphysical calculations. Is it better to have not lived at all or to have lived a good life even if that means being eventually killed to be eaten by others? Does the life of a single chicken that lives a long life result in more or less net happiness and suffering than two (or more) chickens whose lives are cut short? And so on.

Next: How do we weigh the benefits of a good life against a quick and painless but early death?

POST SCRIPT: This Modern World

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on stupidity in politics.

August 08, 2008

Changing the political calendar

(The series on the ethics of food will continue next week.)

If you are at all like me, you are probably already sick of the presidential election and simply want to get it over with. We are currently in that part of the political season where nothing of significance is happening and yet there is a lot of time to fill, so we have a relentless focus on trivialities and an endless obsession with polls, trying to make sense of their ups and downs in relation to news events.

Take for example the absurd fuss over tire pressure:

Then we have the nonsense about celebrities, triggered by this ad from the McCain camp suggesting that Obama was a frivolous airhead:

The only noteworthy thing to emerge from this latter non-issue is the Paris Hilton counter-ad poking fun at McCain. It cannot be a good sign for McCain that she is a better speaker than him.

While I enjoy silliness as much as the next person, these things indicate to me that the campaign has already gone on too long and the candidates have far too much time on their hands. It is time to change the American political calendar.

Here is my plan, for what it is worth, based on the belief that voters can be divided into two groups: those who decide early and those who decide at the last minute.

The early deciders are either those who follow politics closely and already have all the information they need to make a decision, or those who make their decision based on party affiliation, specific single-issues, or candidate characteristics that are known early. There is very little that could happen between now and the election to make these early deciders change their minds, though their level of enthusiasm for their candidate could wax and wane. For example, almost all the people I talk to have already decided, like me, who they are going to vote for and it is hard to see them switch.

The voters who decide at the last minute are either those who don't care much about politics but have a vague sense of civic duty that they must vote and will go with their 'gut' when it comes time to pull the lever, or are simply chronic procrastinators who will wait until the last minute to find out what the candidates are all about. For such people, it does not matter whether they have another hour, week, month, or year to make their decision. They will do so at the last minute, whenever that minute is.

My theory about why the polls fluctuate during this time is not because people are changing their minds as a result of any news event (speculating about this is purely a game that keeps the pundits employed) but that this second group of voters gives more or less random answers to the question of who they are likely to vote for, coupled with sampling biases.

So why must we have this Sargasso Sea of dead time between when the nominees have been decided and the election held? What purpose is served by this other than requiring an enormous amount of money to raised and spent by the candidates on advertising, traveling around the country and the world, and for the media to follow them?

Here's a much better calendar. The date of the election is fixed in the US constitution to be early November and cannot be changed. [Update: Jim Eastman has pointed out in the comments that this is incorrect, that the date is set by statute.] Similarly the idea of having primaries is a good one in that it gives the public at least some semblance of participation in the choice in the nominee, even if just barely, so it should be retained.

So why not schedule the primaries in the months of July, August, September, have the party conventions at the end of September or beginning of October, and then run an intensive presidential campaign for just three to four weeks (like other countries do) before the elections at the beginning of November?

All that this would require is for the two parties to agree to this primary and convention schedule. Since both would benefit equally by not wasting so much time, there seems to be no reason why it could not happen.

Of course, individual candidates could still start as early as they want to to lay the groundwork to run for office but at least we would not have to pay any attention until June or so and thus not be subjected to an interminably drawn out election schedule. Also, candidates and voters would be most involved in the summer months, allowing more students to be involved in the process without taking time off from school, and we would be spared the dreary spectacle of people trudging around in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire in the dead of winter.

POST SCRIPT: On not watching the Olympics

It seems like just yesterday that I was not watching the 2004 Olympics (wherever it was held) and now it is already time to ignore the current one, whose opening ceremonies are today.

I long ago got sick of the coverage, with its relentless commercials, the almost exclusive coverage of only the events that US athletes were taking part in, the jingoism, grandstanding, and flag-waving on display by athletes of all countries, the cheating, and the sappy biographical stories of athletes I had never heard of before and would never hear of again.

Promising that marquee events are 'Just ahead' when the announcers had no plans on showing it for at least an hour (to be filled with commercials), had to be one of the most annoying parts of the coverage.

Here are some suggestions to improve the Olympics and its coverage.

  1. Only play the Olympic anthem at all medal ceremonies, not the national anthem of the gold medal winner's country. If the Olympics don't have an anthem, use the theme from Monty Python's Flying Circus. It is short and bouncy and sounds anthem-like with all those tubas.
  2. Any athlete who indulges in excessive boasting or 'I'm number 1' finger-pointing or taunting of other athletes or in ostentatious flag waving victory laps after winning an event gets hit with a rubber chicken.
  3. Eliminate all events where the results are determined by judges scoring on 'artistic merit' or aesthetics. This means that gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and diving must go.
  4. Get rid of all the horse events. It seems like the horses are doing all the work at an event meant to showcase human athletic achievement. If horse events are to be included, then why not NASCAR?
  5. Get rid of beach volleyball. How did this casual summer pastime come to be in the Olympics? What next – a 'dog catching a Frisbee' event?

Thank you. End of rant.

August 07, 2008

The ethics of food-7: Increasing the rights of animals

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In addition to the morality of treating all animals humanely, the arguments of the animal rights philosophers and activists that animals should have more legal rights are slowly gaining ground. It is clear that over time, humans are slowly expanding our circle of consideration to be more inclusive of other species.

For example, Spain's parliament on June 25, 2008 gave rights to Great Apes, the family of animals that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans.

Spain's parliament voiced its support on Wednesday for the rights of great apes to life and freedom in what will apparently be the first time any national legislature has called for such rights for non-humans.

Parliament's environmental committee approved resolutions urging Spain to comply with the Great Apes Project, devised by scientists and philosophers who say our closest genetic relatives deserve rights hitherto limited to humans.
. . .
Keeping apes for circuses, television commercials or filming will also be forbidden and breaking the new laws will become an offence under Spain's penal code.

Keeping an estimated 315 apes in Spanish zoos will not be illegal, but supporters of the bill say conditions will need to improve drastically in 70 percent of establishments to comply with the new law.

Philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri founded the Great Ape Project in 1993, arguing that "non-human hominids" like chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and bonobos should enjoy the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured.

Of course, the idea that we extend our protections to just those that are close to us on the evolutionary tree can still be criticized as just an extended form of speciesism.

Broader protections have been extended to vertebrates in Britain due to legislation passed in 1986.

In Britain, such considerations have already led to legislation that restricts the use of animals in education. Scientific procedures that cause 'adverse effects' such as pain and stress to living vertebrates are regulated by the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, and are allowed only at undergraduate level and above. The act specifically prohibits such procedures in primary and secondary schools. The restrictions extend to fetuses, including hen's eggs, from halfway through gestation or incubation, and larval forms such as tadpoles from the time they become capable of feeding independently

To reduce or refrain from eating meat is not asking a lot from people. Restricting the use of animals in research is much more problematic because the cost/benefit balance swings much more to the benefits side.

It is true that in the past we have been too cavalier in the way that animals have been used, sometimes allowing animal experimentation merely to develop commercial products such as cosmetics and perfumes, or simply to give students dissection experience that may not have been necessary or could be obtained other ways. While those kinds of abuses are now becoming less common, the question of where to draw the line is not easy.

While few are arguing for a total ban on animal experimentation, there is an increasing awareness that for such experiments to be allowed, a strong case must be made that the benefits are considerable and important and cannot be obtained in any other way.

[I]t is not necessary to insist that all animal experiments stop immediately. All we need to say is that experiments serving no direct and urgent purpose should stop immediately, and in the remaining fields of research, we should, whenever possible, seek to replace experiments that involve animals with alternative methods that do not. (p. 48) . . . [W]henever experimenters claim that their experiments are important enough to justify the use of animals, we should ask them whether they would be prepared to use a brain-damaged human being at a mental level similar to that of the animals they are planning to use. (p. 52) . . . Since a speciesist bias, like a racist bias, is unjustifiable, an experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a brain-damaged human would also be justifiable. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 53.)

Singer argues that the pursuit of knowledge, however beneficial we might claim it to be, is not an unfettered right.

[T]he ethical question of the justifiability of animal experimentation cannot be settled by pointing to its benefits for us, no matter how persuasive the evidence in favor of such benefits may be. The ethical principle of equal consideration of interests will rule out some means of obtaining knowledge. There is nothing sacred about the right to pursue knowledge. We already accept many restrictions on scientific enterprise. We do not believe that scientists have a general right to perform painful or lethal experiments on human beings without their consent, although there are many cases in which such experiments would advance knowledge far more rapidly than any other method. Now we need to broaden the scope of this existing restriction on scientific research. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 56.)

Singer is saying that such experiments are not allowable unless they are crucial enough that we would be as willing to do the experiment on a severely brain damaged human (who also has no friends and relatives) instead of a chimpanzee.

This is quite a high bar and it is on this point that Singer is likely to lose people, even those who otherwise support his views about the way we should treat animals. While we do allow human experimentation currently in the form of clinical trials and other forms of experimental treatment, it is only after the case has been made that there is only a small risk of harm. As far as I am aware, the standard is lower for experimentation on animals.

Finding a common standard that would meet the needs of scientific researchers and animal rights activists is likely to be the biggest obstacle.

(Note: One of the commenters to the previous post (Cindy) actually does some of this kind of medical research and her thoughts on this topic carry the weight of actual knowledge.)


August 06, 2008

The ethics of food-6: Against speciesism

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Peter Singer opens his 1975 book Animal Liberation with this statement:

This book, Animal Liberation, is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals. This tyranny has caused and today is still causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared with that which has resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white human over black humans. The struggle against this tyranny is a struggle as important as any of the moral and social issues that have been fought over in recent years. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 21)

Equating the present treatment of animals with the horrors of slavery is strong stuff. It is important to realize that by doing so he is not in any way minimizing the horror of slavery. In fact, one thing that shines through in Singer's writings is his deep abhorrence of all kinds of exploitation. On the contrary, he is trying to make us view our treatment of animals with the same horror that we rightly view slavery. His rhetoric is being used to shock us into a realization of how barbaric is our present-day treatment of animals.

Is it possible that future generations will look back in horror at our current treatment of animals and wonder how we could have been so blind to the barbarity of our actions, the way that we now look back at slave owners?

[C]ould it be . . . we will someday come to regard speciesism as an evil comparable to that of racism? Is it possible that history will someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans who went about their lives in the shadow of Treblinka? The South African novelist J. M. Coetzee posed precisely that question in a lecture at Princeton not long ago; he answered it in the affirmative. If the animal rightists are right, then "a crime of stupendous proportions" (in Coetzee's words) is going on all around us every day, just beneath our notice. (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, p. 309)

The problem in a nutshell is this: A bedrock assumption is that we as humans should extend our full consideration to other humans. We think it is wrong to exploit them for our own ends, and would condemn the killing and eating of other humans. Even if someone had ceased to be of any value at all to society, we would consider it wrong to devalue that person's life.

So what gives us the right to devalue the lives of members of other species?

It is important to realize that Singer is not an absolutist. He does not condemn all killing and eating of animals. Even if we do not give the interests of animals the same full consideration we give to the interests of humans, Singer argues that at the very least, what should drive our decision making is the desire to eliminate, or at least reduce, pain and suffering. And one of the things that we should target is the present day industrial farming model that treats animals unbelievably cruelly. This is a clearly avoidable evil that even meat eaters could and should embrace.

Only the tiniest fraction of the tens of billions of farm animals slaughtered for food each year – the figure for the United States alone is nine billion – were treated during their lives in ways that respected their interests. Questions about the wrongness of killing in itself are not relevant to the moral issue of eating meat or eggs from factory-farmed animals, as most people in developed countries do. . . . In the light of these facts, the issue to focus on is not whether there are some circumstances in which it could be right to eat meat, but on what we can do to avoid contributing to this immense amount of animal suffering. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 70)

Whatever one's views on eating meat, I think most people would agree that animals should be treated as kindly and humanely as possible. We rightly react with horror to stories in which animals have been treated badly and look upon with disgust the perpetrators of such acts.

This may be why it is that many of the darker aspects of our industrial food production system involving animals are kept away from public view. Michael Pollan found that he could not get to see the places where beef cattle are slaughtered or where layer chickens are kept. In fact, he argues that one of the best ways to improve the conditions of animals in the food chain might be to legislate complete transparency in all aspects of the production line, to the extent of requiring the walls of the facilities be made of glass, open to the public, and easily visible to anyone who wants to see exactly how their meat and eggs get to their supermarkets. This is not an absurd idea. Pollan reports that one company (Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minnesota) "is so confident of their treatment of animals that they have walled their abattoir in glass." (p. 333)

Pollan also describes his experience on Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm where people are welcome to visit and see how the animals live and how they die. Pollan himself took part in the process where he personally killed chickens, watched by members of the local community who had come to buy chicken. While there is no doubt that such an experience might turn someone off meat eating forever, Pollan reports that having lived on the farm and having seen how well the animals were treated in life and how humanely they were killed, the experience did not turn him off meat as he had expected it to.

Somehow, for reasons he could not quite explain, the fact that the animals had led a good life and had what seemed like a quick and painless death made the situation acceptable to him.

POST SCRIPT: Now, this is the 'on' switch . . .

John McCain apparently does not know how to use a computer, even to surf the net or get email. This has caused some snickering but Jackie and Dunlap have some advice for him on how to deal with this issue.

August 05, 2008

The anthrax case-2: The scandalous behavior of ABC News

(The series on the ethics of food will continue later.)

The way the anthrax scare was used to panic the public in the wake of 9/11 and create a rush to war was one of the many low points in recent media history.

The way they did that was by presenting totally false information that the anthrax contained traces of materials that could only come from Iraq, charges that were widely disseminated by, among others, the notorious neoconservative Laurie Mylroie, one of the major cheerleaders for invading Iraq.

Who is this Mylroie? Peter Bergen wrote a profile of her in the Washington Monthly in December 2003:

In what amounts to the discovery of a unified field theory of terrorism, Mylroie believes that Saddam was not only behind the '93 Trade Center attack, but also every antiAmerican terrorist incident of the past decade, from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the leveling of the federal building in Oklahoma City to September 11 itself. She is, in short, a crackpot, which would not be significant if she were merely advising say, Lyndon LaRouche. But her neocon friends who went on to run the war in Iraq believed her theories, bringing her on as a consultant at the Pentagon, and they seem to continue to entertain her eccentric belief that Saddam is the fount of the entire shadow war against America.

Glenn Greenwald describes the disgraceful role played by the media, especially ABC News, in using this false information to shift the focus away from a domestic criminal probe of the anthrax attacks to one that excited public terror and drove the mad rush to war with Iraq.

During the last week of October, 2001, ABC News, led by Brian Ross, continuously trumpeted the claim as their top news story that government tests conducted on the anthrax – tests conducted at Ft. Detrick -- revealed that the anthrax sent to Daschele contained the chemical additive known as bentonite. ABC News, including Peter Jennings, repeatedly claimed that the presence of bentonite in the anthrax was compelling evidence that Iraq was responsible for the attacks, since -- as ABC variously claimed -- bentonite "is a trademark of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program" and "only one country, Iraq, has used bentonite to produce biological weapons."

ABC News' claim -- which they said came at first from "three well-placed but separate sources," followed by "four well-placed and separate sources" -- was completely false from the beginning. There never was any bentonite detected in the anthrax (a fact ABC News acknowledged for the first time in 2007 only as a result of my badgering them about this issue). It's critical to note that it isn't the case that preliminary tests really did detect bentonite and then subsequent tests found there was none. No tests ever found or even suggested the presence of bentonite. The claim was just concocted from the start. It just never happened.

We are now told that right from the beginning, the FBI was convinced that the anthrax came from the Fort Detrick facility. So who was lying then?

Greenwald continues:

Surely the question of who generated those false Iraq-anthrax reports is one of the most significant and explosive stories of the last decade. The motive to fabricate reports of bentonite and a link to Saddam is glaring. Those fabrications played some significant role -- I'd argue a very major role -- in propagandizing the American public to perceive of Saddam as a threat, and further, propagandized the public to believe that our country was sufficiently threatened by foreign elements that a whole series of radical policies that the neoconservatives both within and outside of the Bush administration wanted to pursue -- including an attack an Iraq and a whole array of assaults on our basic constitutional framework -- were justified and even necessary in order to survive.

ABC News already knows the answers to these questions. They know who concocted the false bentonite story and who passed it on to them with the specific intent of having them broadcast those false claims to the world, in order to link Saddam to the anthrax attacks and -- as importantly -- to conceal the real culprit(s) (apparently within the U.S. government) who were behind the attacks. And yet, unbelievably, they are keeping the story to themselves, refusing to disclose who did all of this. They're allegedly a news organization, in possession of one of the most significant news stories of the last decade, and they are concealing it from the public, even years later.

They're not protecting "sources." The people who fed them the bentonite story aren't "sources." They're fabricators and liars who purposely used ABC News to disseminate to the American public an extremely consequential and damaging falsehood. But by protecting the wrongdoers, ABC News has made itself complicit in this fraud perpetrated on the public, rather than a news organization uncovering such frauds. That is why this is one of the most extreme journalistic scandals that exists, and it deserves a lot more debate and attention than it has received thus far.

The willingness of the media to accept at face value the claims of the government is the real problem. On NPR yesterday, Renee Montagne, the host of Morning Edition, said things like the FBI is due to release this week some the evidence it has "amassed" against Ivins, giving the impression that the FBI actually has huge amounts of such evidence. She said that the evidence seems "compelling" and referred to the "genetic fingerprints" of the anthrax (based on apparently 'new science 'developed by the FBI) that somehow pointed to Ivins' lab, and a psychologist's description of him as a "threat". It is important to realize that she had no idea if any of these statement were true. She just passed them on as fact because the government had told her, and thus they become part of the official story.

It is a very dangerous thing when the news media and the government collude to disseminate false information. ABC News has a lot of explaining to do. It should start by revealing who were these four "well placed" people who were spreading the dangerously false information that helped drive the country to war with Iraq.

Justin Raimondo has been tracking the anthrax story from the very beginning and his most recent analysis is well worth reading.

Glenn Greenwald has a follow-up posting that asks some very important questions.

POST SCRIPT: The perfect country and western song

Listen to the last verse, which puts it over the top.

August 04, 2008

The anthrax case-1: The collusion of the FBI and the media

(The series on the ethics of food will continue later this week.)

The death of Bruce E. Ivins, an anthrax researcher at Fort Detrick, Md has suddenly thrust the ignored anthrax story back into the news.

The fact that Ivins apparently killed himself just when he was about to be indicted by the FBI is being taken as a tacit admission of his guilt. I am not convinced that the case has been made. After all, the FBI previously relentlessly hounded another scientist Steven J. Hatfill with leaks to the media for the same case, so that he lost his job and could not get others. Hatfill fought back and sued the government and they were forced to settle with him in June for $5.8 million. It seems strange that the attention shifted to Ivins just after the collapse of their case against Hatfill.

The FBI and the media (especially NBC, CNN, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution) also hounded another innocent person Richard Jewell for the Olympic bombing, again based on FBI and Justice Department leaks. Eventually NBC and CNN were forced to settle with him.

A similar situation occurred with Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee where a series of FBI leaks passed through the New York Times and Washington Post destroyed his career. He also sued and eventually the government and the media were forced to pay him $1.8 million.

When the government sets its mind to it, it can use its powers to torment people indefinitely to try and break them. As Alexander Cockburn says in the similar persecution of Sami al-Arian, a professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida.

There are few prospects in the justice system so grimly awful as when the feds decide never to let go. Rebuffed in their persecutions of some target by juries, or by contrary judges, they shift ground, betray solemn agreements, dream up new stratagems to exhaust their victims, drive them into bankruptcy, despair and even suicide. They have all the money and all the time in the world.

This is why the deep politicization of the US Justice Department by the Bush Administration, placing partisan political hacks in positions that should be staffed by career professionals, is so disturbing. Unlike most other government agencies, the Justice Department has the power to target individuals and make their lives hell even if they are completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Since Ivins knew that the focus had shifted to him and that he would receive the same trial-and-conviction-in-the-public-eye-by-leaks-to-the-media method favored by the government that had destroyed the lives and careers of so many before him, he may well have decided that he did not have the stomach to deal with it, even if he was innocent. The indications are that he was a nerdy, nervous type, not someone with the kind of determination that Hatfill had for being under constant surveillance.

It is reported that cars with detectives were ostentatiously parked in front of his house, thus letting the whole neighborhood know that they had a suspicious person in their midst. Colleagues and friends were repeatedly questioned about him in ways that suggested that the authorities were trying to alienate them from him . He and his whole family were questioned by the FBI, and his family was told that Ivins was the anthrax murderer.

Over the past two years, many who knew him saw the effects of accumulating pressure as the anthrax investigation veered toward him. "He would tell stories about how he would come home and everything he owned would be in piles," said a Fort Detrick employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because workers there had been instructed not to talk with reporters. The employee said his files, lab samples and equipment were frequently seized by authorities.

Within the last few months, Ivins seemed to have gone into a mental tailspin that required psychiatric treatment. He could well have decided that he could not take it anymore. The main charges that he might be dangerous come from his estranged brother who had not spoken to him since 1985, and a social worker who said he had threatened her while she was treating him during his recent illness. His brother clearly hated him, telling NPR that he could not think of a single nice thing about him and that he was glad that he was dead.

But while Ivins seems to have been somewhat unorthodox in his work habits and a little eccentric in his personal behavior, they were not in ways that indicated that he was a cold-blooded killer who would also write letters seeking to lay the blame for the anthrax attacks on Muslims. They seemed to be the kinds of idiosyncracies that one often finds amongst researchers, especially scientists. Take this description:

Ivins could frequently be seen walking around his neighborhood for exercise. He volunteered with the American Red Cross of Frederick County, and he played keyboard and helped clean up after Masses at St. John's the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, where a dozen parishioners gathered Friday after morning Mass to pray for him.

The Rev. Richard Murphy called Ivins "a quiet man ... always very helpful and pleasant."

An avid juggler, Ivins gave juggling demonstrations around Frederick in the 1980s.

"One time, he demonstrated his juggling skills by lying on his back in the department and juggling with his hands," said Byrne, who described Ivins as "eccentric."

Whenever a colleague would leave the bacteriology division, Ivins would write a song or poem for that person and perform it, accompanying himself on keyboard, Byrne said.

Ivins had several letters to the editor published in The Frederick News-Post over the last decade. He denounced taxpayer funding for assisted suicide, pointed readers to a study that suggested a genetic component for homosexuality and said he had stopped listening to local radio station WFMD because he was offended by the language and racially charged commentary of its hosts.

He also commented on the growing political influence of conservative Christians, and he was willing to criticize his church.

"The Roman Catholic Church should learn from other equally worthy Christian denominations and eagerly welcome female clergy as well as married clergy," Ivins wrote.

Byrne said Ivins appeared to be at peace and that he expressed no interest in the anthrax mailings, even after some letters were sent to Fort Detrick for analysis.

"There are people who you just know are ticking bombs," Byrne said. "He was not one of them."

Maybe Ivins was very good at maintaining a façade of normalcy and is the person behind the anthrax attacks. But we should be careful of maligning a man now incapable of defending himself. Now that he is dead one can expect a barrage of unsubstantiated allegations from the FBI, passed on uncritically by the media, aimed at painting him as some kind of homicidal maniac.

While the guilt of Ivins is by no means clear as yet, the media is undoubtedly guilty of misdirecting the public about the anthrax scare and using it to whip up war hysteria against Iraq. The case against the media will be examined tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Teach your children

One of the best songs to emerge from the 1960s, sung by Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

August 01, 2008

The ethics of food-5: Pain and suffering

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Philosopher and advocate of animal rights Peter Singer is sometimes accused of going out of his way to make deliberately outrageous statements. From what I have read of him, this charge seems unjust. He strikes me as a very thoughtful philosopher who is not being merely a provocateur but is skillfully using the argument from marginal cases to show us the consequences of carrying the often glib justifications we use to justify our treatment of animals to their logical conclusion. The end result often makes us uncomfortable, which may explain the somewhat heated responses he generates.

Singer is not arguing that all animals be treated just like humans. He accepts that we do differ in morally significant ways. What he is asking for is that we not judge purely on the basis of this or that quality but on the equal consideration of interests.

Equal consideration of interests is not the same as equal treatment, [Singer] points out; children have an interest in being educated, pigs in rooting around in the dirt. But where their interests are the same, the principle of equality demands they receive the same consideration. And the one all-important interest that humans share with pigs, as with all sentient creatures, is an interest in avoiding pain. (The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan, p. 308)

Singer and animal rights philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the utilitarian school of ethics, argue that it is the capacity for pain and suffering that should determine whether an animal has interests that deserve to be considered.

The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in a meaningful way. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 35.)

As an example, we can say that it is acceptable to kick a stone down the road because the stone feels no pain and thus has no interest in not being kicked. But a cat does have an interest in not being kicked, because it has the capacity to feel pain.

Pain is a fairly straightforward phenomenon that we can usually see directly. It is not hard to say when an animal is in pain. In fact, slaughterhouses in the US are supposedly now designed to kill animals quickly without them experiencing undue pain, though how one judges whether one is successful in this goal is problematic.

Suffering is more complicated than pain because of the presence of additional components such as language, and consciousness. Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) summarizes the arguments of philosophers Daniel Dennett and Stephen Budiansky, who argue that it is likely that humans feel these things differently from other animals because of this heightened awareness.

[H]uman pain differs from animal pain by an order of magnitude. The qualitative difference is largely the result of our possession of language and, by virtue of language, our ability to have thoughts about thoughts and to imagine what is not. The philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests we can draw a distinction between pain, which a great many animals obviously experience, and suffering, which depends on a degree of self-consciousness only a handful of animals appear to command. Suffering in this view is not just lots of pain but pain amplified by distinctly humans emotions such as regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation, and dread. (p. 316)

It is possible that animal suffering is sometimes lessened by their "inability to experience the same dread of anticipation as human beings, or to remember the suffering as vividly." So the suffering associated with having to undergo surgery may be greater for humans because they know it is coming and know that things can go horribly wrong.

But it is not necessarily the case that the presence of language and consciousness always increases the sense of suffering. Humans will likely find the pain of a visit to the dentist more bearable than a nonhuman animal does simply because we are aware of the visit's purpose, know that it will be of limited duration, and can look forward to future benefits. An animal cannot know any of those things and so dental work could well cause much more suffering.

As Singer points out, animals also cannot always discriminate based on intentions. A human prisoner captured in war and read their Geneva Convention rights can at least be assured that they will be released at the end of hostilities and this makes their captivity easier to bear. But "A wild animal cannot distinguish an attempt to overpower and confine from an attempt to kill; the one causes as much terror as the other." (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 42)

While we should not project onto animals the full range of emotions that humans might feel, we should not be too quick to dismiss their ability to possess more subtle emotions either. Pet owners especially might well dispute Dennett's claim that feelings such as regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation, and dread are 'distinctly human', and argue that their pets do feel at least some things like shame and dread and guilt, though maybe not to the same extent as humans.

Quantifying suffering so that we can try and minimize it is not easy. For example, if our goal is to minimize individual suffering, it could be argued that we should prefer medical research to be done on a terribly brain damaged, but still alive, human being who had lost all capacity to suffer pain or had any awareness even, rather than be done on (say) a normal chimpanzee, because the animal is likely to experience more pain and suffering than the brain-damaged human. But we don't, again raising the charge of speciesism.

Suppose we go beyond just individual suffering and also take into account also the suffering of the community around them. I think we can agree that the relatives of the brain-damaged person are more likely to suffer from such an experiment than the relatives of the chimp, simply because they are aware of what is going on. So while taking into account the suffering of relatives seems like it provides a means of preferring humans, Singer counters by arguing that in practice we would privilege even an orphaned permanently brain-damaged infant over a fully sentient chimpanzee that had a family.

It is hard to set about quantifying pain and suffering in difficult cases such as these. But in those situations where there is no doubt, using the criterion of minimizing pain and suffering seems like a reasonable moral yardstick.

Next: Can we avoid speciesism?

POST SCRIPT: Mere brutes?

Those who think that animals cannot feel complex emotions might change their minds after seeing this remarkable video.

For more on this story, see here.