Thursday, April 26, 2007

Senator John McCain

Senator John McCain does some things I don't like. He takes a position on Iraq which, in my opinion, is doomed to failure. He sidles up to religious fundamentalists in a manner that suggests pandering on a street corner. I would expect 60 Minutes' Andy Rooney would summarize my feelings about McCain in the following manner; 'I like McCain about 80% of the time; the other 20% I can't stand him'. I have given a lot of thought about who should be the next president of the United States. In my opinion, George W. Bush has been the worst president ever. His smug superiority complex has badly damaged the institutional structure of our way of life and form of government and the next president needs to be a states person of the first order of magnitude to repair the damage both at home and abroad. Until this moment in time I have been lulled into the mind-think of polarization that the last fifteen years or so of Republican-Democrat politics has wrought. Under this group mind-think, a politician needs to agree 100% of the time with the voter or he/she is garbage. I am re-thinking my position in this regard. I cannot succumb to the general platitude politician (i.e. the one who carefully scripts a position which is only calculated to not offend) so prevalent in the current presidential crop of candidates. Give me someone with some meat on their bones. Now that McCain has formally announced his candidacy (big surprise) I am committed to taking a serious look at the man, particularly that 20% I don't like. Will I see something there that aligns him so closely with the Bushian style that would cause me to reject him out of hand? At this writing I don't know. I do sense one thing, however. I sense that millions of people in the United States are precisely at the same station as I am. We sense that a re-grip on the fundamental principles upon which this government was founded requires a first rate person who can move beyond platitudes. Is McCain that person? I don't know, but his five years at the Hanoi Hilton establishes a high bar in terms of life experiences that a 'states person to be' can bring to the table in contrast to, say for example, a four hundred dollar haircut candidate. My mind is open. I am listening.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Band of Zealots

To understand the power of the Supreme court ala its decision in Carhart v Gonzales, it is necessary to juxtapose the reasoning found in that decision with another leading case that marginalizes the role of scientists in their respective disciplinary fields, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (1993). In brief Carhart decided (five Catholic justices to four non-Catholics) that a specific type of late abortion procedure could be properly banned because, in part, a woman who underwent the procedure might feel bad about it later in life. Just fourteen years ago, Daubert established criteria for the admissibility of expert opinions on matters of a scientific nature. In considerable detail, the Daubert court laid out a virtual road map for admissibility of opinion evidence. That opinion and the rules of evidence require the trial judge to be the gatekeeper regarding the scope of the opinions that can be drawn by scientists based upon the information that is available to them in the scientific community. In short a procedure was established whereby the judge (a person who enjoyed the office by virtue of political connection) with zero scientific training and understanding of the ways and means of the scientific world would tell highly trained and functioning scientists what kind of conclusions they could draw from available scientific evidence before the scientist could render his opinions and explanation to a jury. I call it the "If I don't understand it, you can't say it" rule. Let me explain. In its application, Daubert has proven to be extremely limiting in allowing jurors to consider evidence that most often is a matter of common sense. The old saying "if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck" would be thrown out by a trial judge applying Daubert because there are no scientific studies concluding that the duck is a duck. In areas of science (most of science) no responsible scientist would ever utter a statement such as 'exposure to drug A caused the child's birth defects'. (The issue in Daubert, by the way). Instead, there is use of cautious language such as; 'an association', or 'a high probability that the drug caused the defect'. Judges, untrained in the rigors of science, not hearing the magic words and failing to appreciate the nuances of scientific disciplines, and likewise totally ignorant of the subject, reject the proffered opinions as merely speculative and therefore unworthy of consideration by a jury. The net effect, of course, is that no opinion means that the party offering the evidence, usually a damaged plaintiff seeking redress against a major pharmaceutical house, or equivalent corporate entity, is tossed out of court. Why I call it the "If I don't understand it, you can't say it" rule is that the vast abundance of subsequent cases interpreting Daubert indicate findings that what is really going on is that the judge is too dumb to understand what is going on and leaps to the arrogant conclusion that because he (she) cannot understand it, it is obviously beyond the understanding capability of the jury. Thus, the real litmus test here is the scope of the judge's limited understanding coupled with his/her background, i.e. the politics that got them to the station in life they enjoy.

Now back to Carhart. Instead of applying the Daubert rationale to its own thinking, catechism teachings are used as a knee jerk substitute for scientific analysis. Carhart states (in part) "Whether to have an abortion requires a difficult and painful moral decision . .., which some women come to regret." Where is the scientific proof, ala Daubert, for reaching the conclusion that some women might feel bad years later for undergoing the specific abortion procedure under consideration in Carhart? As opposed to some other abortion technique? As opposed to raising a child in circumstances poorly suited for the raising of the child? What we really have here is an arrogant court imposing its own notion of right and wrong on the country based on Catholic theology. To go back to Daubert briefly, that case was one of several hundreds involving the anti-nausea drug, Bendectin. It was contended that Bendectin, when administered to pregnant women during a specific window (30-50 days post-ovulation) of pregnancy, caused limb defects in a small percentage of the offspring of those pregnancies. Expert witnesses from nine different scientific disciplines concluded, based upon their respective areas of science, that in individual cases the most likely explanation for the child's birth defect was the exposure to the drug during the critical period of limb development. All of these witnesses held doctorate degrees in their respective disciplines. Yet, court after court threw these cases out because epidemiological studies of questionable scientific value in answering the ultimate question (sponsored by the company making the drug) failed to conclude that the drug caused the defects, no big surprise because epidemiological studies do not draw such conclusions. To best illustrate the ignorance of judges, one particularly striking example comes to mind. In the middle of a trial on behalf of twelve hundred children in Cincinnati, I attempted to cross examine a defense expert witness on the value of the company sponsored studies by interjecting the concept of 'bias' in those studies. In science, bias is always to be considered in evaluating the results of any study. Has the researcher consciously or unconsciously included a factor in the research that modified the results? The presence of bias is one of the reasons that control groups are used in scientific research, Double blind studies (i.e. both the researcher and the participant are unaware of whether the recipient is receiving the real drug or a placebo) are conducted specifically to eliminate the potential for bias. The trial judge in the Cincinnati case cut off my cross examination on this subject by the simple declaration that the meaning of bias was limited to the angle a bolt of cloth was cut. He pulled out a dictionary in the courtroom and read this definition in a side bar conference. By such reasoning, he cut off a fertile area of information for jury consideration that the fact that the drug company just possibly might have an interest in obtaining results in company sponsored research that revealed no problems with the drug, a classic application of the "If I don't understand it . . " rule.

How this applies to Carhart is obvious. By bring a pre-ordained line of thinking to a situation, any judge, or group of judges, can achieve the results they wish to achieve. We are the victims of a small band of religiously motivated zealots who are hell bent on telling us what to do with our lives. This same band of zealots in black robes are also telling us that in America corporations should win and the little guy should always lose. Same cast of characters, same faulty reasoning, same double speak. Sorry for the rant. Just had to get this off my chest.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Frogs in Hot Water

A frog placed in a pot of water that is slowly heated to the point of boiling will stay in that pot with no attempt to escape until it is too late. The current Republican administration and its minions in Congress and the judiciary have placed our system of government in precisely the analogous situation as that frog in the pot. The questions that must be asked now are 1) Is it already too late to get out of the pot? and 2) How much hotter does the pot have to get to allow voters to recognize (and respond to and avert) the potential disaster? First, a seemingly irrelevant observation; we are captives to 'in the moment' events such as Imus, the Virginia Tech shootings, Barry Bonds' steroid usage, the Super Bowl, American Idol and others such as to divert our much needed attention to what is happening before our very eyes. These narcotizing events dim our abilities to see, analyze and properly respond to events which are proceeding on the calamitous course of suborning our democratic system of government. To go on and on and detail the litany of acts of our current administration would begin to sound like partisan grumbling, but suffice it to say that the pattern of these efforts is clear. To present two egregious examples, the American public has allowed our president to lie to us about the justification for starting a war and, thus far, there have been no serious attempts to hold Bush or his minions accountable for that behavior. The water was apparently too lukewarm and bathed in security blanket rhetoric. Evidence that the temperature has indeed heated up is demonstrated by the current expose' of administration efforts to turn the federal judicial system into a weapon of the Republican party. Communications professors Donald Shields and John Cragan have found that, since Bush took office, U.S. attorneys have investigated or indicted 298 Democratic officeholders and only 67 Republicans. Where is the outrage? Compare the lack of response against an attack against one of the very fundamental principles underlying our system of government with the rage against Imus that has dominated the airwaves for a couple of weeks only to be replaced by the Virginia Tech massacre as the object of our collective attentions. We must act to safeguard the fundamental principles and framework of our government. We must do it now. It's getting hot in here. Let's get the hell out of this hot water.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


The disease is in ever present danger, but is being driven underground, as it were, by the incessant call to arms to eliminate a minuscule source of the disease, certainly not its cause. I am talking about Imus. To eliminate Imus' job and banish him from the airwaves might make some of us feel good for awhile, kind of like putting a band aid on a skinned knee or blowing on a burned finger. To create the object lesson of banning one person from the use of politically incorrect racist language misses the point entirely. It is a feel good reactive response which, by all measures, will have no lasting impact on the underlying disease from which it springs. It diverts people from what really needs to be done. That disease is what I call victimology. People of all classes, ethnic groups and sizes love to be victims. It may just be a human trait, but it tends to be a force that allows the continuation of patterns of behavior, individually or as a group, that prevents progress and reinforces destructive behavior. The best examples are in the field of the addictions; e.g., the treatment of alcoholism now universally acknowledges that the drunk never gets better until, as a minimum, he takes personal responsibility for his own behavior. Only when the pattern of denial (I don't have a problem, the fault lies outside me) is broken can true progress take place. Currently we are dealing with the tragedy in Virginia of the deaths caused by a "troubled" young man. The New York Times (April 19, 2007) states: "Responsibility shifts outward from the individual to wider forces. People interviewed on TV tend to direct their anger at the gun, the university administration, society and so on. If they talk about the young killer at all, the socially acceptable word seems to be 'troubled.' He’s more acted upon than acting." Such a heinous crime, but yet we are preoccupied with understanding the "victim" himself who has caused such great harm. In a society hell bent on victimology, one that truly deserves the moniker 'evil' is given a partial free pass because he too is a victim.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Double Standard

April 12th,2007

This response should be entitled “I love Chris Rock.” I do and I go out of my way to watch this young man any time he is on the air, on HBO specials, anything at all. I remember vividly Mr. Rock’s dialogue on Micheal Jackson when the latter was in the midst of his trial on allegedly sexually assaulting little boys. “Michael, you are one dumb n_______.” (I can’t bear to write the word, but not because my own sense of taste and morality is any better than Mr. Rock’s. I can’t write it because the word is no longer in my vocabulary, but I used it plenty as a white kid growing up in the 1950s in Detroit.) The point I need to make here briefly is where is the outrage against Mr. Rock? Where does Mr. Sharpton, the black community and those suitably angered and chagrined by Imus’ remarks stand on that one? If prejudices and racist expressions are harmful, why does Chris Rock get a pass and Imus is thrown on the trash heap? The plain simple fact is that Imus’ remark was dumb and insensitive, but is being blown totally out of proportion by those who stand to gain something other than the betterment of society with their moral indignation.

— Posted by Tom Bleakley

This response was posted in the New York Times on the date indicated. The furor has not died down.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Write About What You Know

This is a melding of three ideas brought together by reading about the apparently suddenly-discovered inconsistencies of John McCain as he embarrasses himself, and probably destroys any chance at the presidency, by declaring the safety of Baghdad. The first element of this trio is the recently begun blog on the opinion pages of the New York Times written by eight graduating college seniors. Rather than give the readers an opportunity to consider what it is like to experience the thoughts of students who have prepared themselves for life in the real world by the arduous and demanding route of the study of various scientific disciples, the NYT has instead opted to bring together a group of students dedicated to journalism and other soft areas of studies (political science, communications). In other words, courses of study the major predicate of which is to summarize and write about what the rest of the world is doing. Learning to comment on activities is a far cry from learning to participate directly in the activity, i.e. learning to think for oneself. If I do not make myself clear perhaps an example will clarify my point. Student A has as her goal to become a DNA recombinant specialist and spends her high school and college career preparing for her goal by the study of chemistry, physical chemistry, molecular biology, calculus and the like, all scientific disciplines essential to an understanding of this complex area of science. Student B, a journalism major who has to conduct a spell check to determine if the world calculus is spelled correctly, writes an article about student A and her interest in recombinant DNA with little or no understanding about the field. Because he is incapable of understanding the subject, he focuses in his written article on the fascinating fact that student A is surprisingly attractive for someone who (impliedly) is dumb enough to have labored so long in such a mundane field of study. At best, freshman classes in these topics have been suffered by student B while the contemplation of just who should be the next American Idol preempted any serious consideration of these scientific disciplines.

The second element of this triad is the various personas that are tried on and discarded by our politicians as they vie to capture the attention (and votes) of Americans. McCain is an example, but he is not the only one. This point can be applied with equal force and validity to any politician. McCain was attacked by Bush's team in 2000 during the run-up to the South Carolina primary election with an impugnation that he was somehow the father of an illegitimate black kid. The fact that he and his wife adopted a Bangladeshi child was somehow lost in the shuffle, but why in the world would a man subjected to such offensiveness allow the perpetrator of such an act to kiss him on the top of the head four years later? Why would McCain state publicly that he loves Bush? In his current state of presenting himself, no one has any idea who he is, or what he represents, but one thing is patently clear; he is willing to alter his views to pander to voters he deems essential to his victory.

The third point of this triad is fed by the answer to this question. Why in the world would the media consider the man who allowed such a denigration of his personal life to go effectively unanswered to continuously be characterized as the straight talk guy in the political community. In other words, why have McCain's inconsistencies been allowed to go unchallenged so long? I submit that question is answered by the melding of the three points of this diatribe; the media today is uncynical. It is uncynical because it is laden with people who have little or no life experience in the topics about which they write. When I first considered the writing of a novel, I was told that one writes about what they know. In that era, my wife gave me a blowup of a cartoon depicting a writer embarking on a novel about a TV remote, presumably to encourage me along in the direction of writing about that which one knows. I hope my point is clear. To understand life, to write about life, requires experiencing life. We have been taken captive by people who sound good, write good, look good, but who know little or nothing about the reality of life.

Now be quiet and hand me that remote.