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Archive for March 10th, 2014

Studying the efforts to spread ignorance and misinformation

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Once you accept that it’s okay to do anything at all to increase profit, you open vast fields that were formerly off-limits because of considerations of ethics, morality, or simple accuracy. Corporations have not been slow to realize that, and since corporations have no duty to society at large (as they see it), only to management and shareholders, we have seen absolute trash promulgated as truth. Michael Hiltzik reports in the LA Times:

Robert Proctor doesn’t think ignorance is bliss. He thinks that what you don’t know can hurt you. And that there’s more ignorance around than there used to be, and that its purveyors have gotten much better at filling our heads with nonsense.

Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford, is one of the world’s leading experts in agnotology, a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance. It’s a rich field, especially today when whole industries devote themselves to sowing public misinformation and doubt about their products and activities.

The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson’s files, “Doubt is our product.” Big Tobacco’s method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo’s author wrote, but to establish a “controversy.”

When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco’s program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.

It’s also echoed by vaccination opponents, who continue to use a single dishonest and thoroughly discredited British paper to sow doubts about the safety of childhood immunizations, and by climate change deniers.

And all those fabricated Obamacare horror stories wholesaled by Republican and conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act and their aiders and abetters in the right-wing press? Their purpose is to sow doubt about the entire project of healthcare reform; if the aim were to identify specific shortcomings of the act, they’d have to accompany every story with a proposal about how to fix it.

Proctor came to the study of agnotology through his study of the Nazi scientific establishment and subsequently of the tobacco industry’s defensive campaign.

Early in his career, he told me, he asked an advisor if Nazi science was an appropriate topic of research. “Of course,” he was told. “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship.” As part of his scholarship, Proctor says he “watches Fox News all the time.”

Proctor acknowledges that not all ignorance is bad.

“There are reasons we don’t want people to know how to make an airborne AIDSvirus or biological weapons,” he says. “And the right to privacy is based on a kind of sanctioned ignorance — we don’t want everyone to know everything about us all the time.”

But then there’s ignorance custom-designed to manipulate the public. “The myth of the ‘information society’ is that we’re drowning in knowledge,” he says. “But it’s easier to propagate ignorance.”

That’s especially so when issues are so complicated that it’s easier to present them as the topics for discussion in which both sides are granted equal time.

Big Tobacco’s public relations campaign against the anti-smoking movement, for example, was aimed at “manufacturing a ‘debate,’ convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present ‘both sides’ of it,” reported Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book, “Merchants of Doubt.”

The industry correctly perceived that no journalist would ever get fired for giving the two sides equal weight, even when that balance wasn’t warranted by the facts.

What has made the modern era so nurturing for ignorance and doubt is the decline of scientific credibility. Norton Wise, a historian of science at UCLA, says scientists deserve a good deal of the blame for that.

“The question is the degree to which the commercialization of academic science is increasing public doubt and destroying the public good at the university and at places like the CDC [Centers for Disease Control],” he says. “Such that they no longer look distinctly different from the tobacco industry or Big Pharma. This is a big problem, given the rampant commercialization at major research universities like UCLA.”

Wise cites a 2004 British parliamentary report showing that three-quarters of all randomized trials appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Assn. and the British Journal Lancet are funded by the pharmaceutical industry. “These are the kinds of things emerging that undermine public trust,” he said.

Indeed, efforts to stamp out the canard that the measles vaccine causes autism are often countered by anti-vaccination activists asserting that government assurances of vaccine safety are part of a conspiracy to safeguard Big Pharma’s profits.

The dangers of ignorance’s foothold in public discourse are twofold.

First, once allowed to take root, misinformation — whether cultural or manufactured — is very hard to dislodge.

In a recent study, a research team headed by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth Collegetried four methods to change the minds of parents who had decided not to immunize their children with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine — a factual refutation of the vaccine-autism link; two different means of warning about the risks to children from contracting measles, mumpsor rubella, including “a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles”; and horrific photos of children suffering from the diseases.

Some of the interventions persuaded the parents that the autism link was specious, but not a single one made the parents more willing to vaccinate their children. And some intensified opposition to the vaccine, a “backfire” effect.

A second danger is that ignorance interferes with the creation of intelligent policy. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 March 2014 at 4:47 pm

Posted in Daily life

The prosecutor who couldn’t win the case against George Zimmerman

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She seems to be quite successful in getting others convicted. Nicole Flatow reports for ThinkProgress:

State prosecutor Angela Corey has become notorious in Florida for being “tough on crime,” except when she isn’t. Her unsuccessful prosecution of George Zimmerman for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was blasted for overlooking several key arguments andstrategies. But she successfully secured a 20-year prison sentence for Marissa Alexander for firing a warning shot during an altercation with her abusive husband. When that was overturned by an appeals court, she fought Alexander’s release pending trial, and sought three 20-year sentences on retrial. And she has vigorously defended charging juveniles as adults — even coercing teens into plea deals with the threat of charging them as an adult if they do not submit to juvenile detention.

A new report by the Florida Times-Union finds that she has also sent far more defendants to death row than any other Florida prosecutor. Since 2009, Corey has secured 21 death sentences, 14 involving African American defendants. Three escaped execution on appeal, but 18 others remain on death row. This is more than twice the number of death row cases in the next-highest district during the same period, while many have sought the death penalty in not a single case during those years.

And it’s not proportional to the number of murders in Corey’s district. Between 2009 and 2012 (the last year for which statistics were available), Corey’s district was responsible for 32 percent of the death row sentences but just 8 percent of the state’s murders, according to statistics provided to ThinkProgress by the American Civil Liberties Union. Miami-Dade County, for example, saw more than twice as many murders during that period, but that jurisdiction’s district attorney has only put 5 people on death row since 2009.

In fact, one of the counties in Corey’s district — Duval County — is one of ten in the countrywith the highest death row rate. A report by the Death Penalty Information Center released last fall found that these ten counties — while comprising just two percent of the U.S. population — account for the majority of U.S. executions. The report noted the relationship between arbitrary factors such as what county you live in and imposition of the cruel and increasingly unusual punishment of death. Another arbitrary factor that has tainted death sentences for years is their racial disproportion. In Corey’s district, 66 percent of death row inmates are African American, while they make up just 16 percent of the state’s population, according to ACLU statistics.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 March 2014 at 12:24 pm

Posted in Law

The Anti-Defamation League’s history of surveillance and spying

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Mark Ames reports at Pacific Standard:

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Anti-Defamation League and the B’nai B’rith. The theme of the celebration was “Imagine a World Without Hate.”

2013 also marked the 20th anniversary of another key episode in ADL history, but it’s not the sort of milestone National Director Abe Foxman will want you to remember. In 1993 it was alleged that the League had been involved in a grotesque rap sheet of covert activities, including espionage, illegal surveillance, theft, and the treasonous sale of classified information to a foreign government. It’s a hell of a tale, and not just for its cartoonish cast of characters: a corrupt police officer, a bungling “fact finder,” and a McCarthyite from Indianapolis.

I have no choice but to remember the story. In 1993 I received a letter in the mail. It informed me that I was the victim of an illegal spy ring involving members of the ADL and a San Francisco Police Department intelligence detective called Tom Gerard. The letter came with an index card that included my full name, driver’s license, the license-plate number on my shitty old Subaru hatchback, and the Mission District addresses of my apartment and the leftie bookstore where I worked, near Guerrero and 20th Street. My file had been marked “Pinko,” one of five categories that the ADL spymaster used to flag the group’s targets.

At that period I was already at a low point. My stepfather spent most of that year dying of a malignant brain tumor. It was a gruesome, agonizing death, and I put off moving to Moscow to help my mother get through it. That alone was so stressful that we both wound up losing our minds in the process. In the grip of that ordeal, learning that the ADL had spied on me seemed like just one more torment in a personal hell.

But I was not alone. Police had seized thousands of index cards like mine in raids on the ADL’s San Francisco office, and in searches of the homes and storage facilities of the organization’s key figures. According to newspaper reports of the time, 12,000 Americans and 950 groups were victims of the now-forgotten scandal.

The list of victims reads like a Who’s Who of the Liberal Establishment: NAACP, ACLU, Greenpeace, ACT UP!, National Lawyers Guild, Mother Jones founder Adam Hochschild, reporters from the Los Angeles Timesand KQED public television, and scores of local labor unions including the United Auto Works and Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers. The ADL operatives even spied on a handful of U.S. Congressmen, all Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, Senator Alan Cranston, Pete McClosky, Mervyn Dymally, and Ron Dellums of Oakland, head of the House Armed Services Committee. Many prominent Jews were also spied on, including Dr. Yigal Arens, the son of former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens.

A Creative Definition of Anti-Semitism

Dr. Arens, who runs an information technology program at the University of Southern California, was targeted because he supported a two-state solution in Israel and the occupied territories. He toldreporters, “The ADL believes that anyone who is an Arab American … or speaks politically against Israel is at least a closet anti-Semite.”

Dr. Arens was, if anything, understating the case. What the ADL understood by the phrase “against Israel” was to become disturbingly clear as the investigation proceeded.

When I opened that letter, I could not have been accused of “speaking politically against Israel.” I’m a Jew, for Christ’s sake! And back then I was also a Republican, still holding on to at least some of my childhood Zionism. But none of that mattered. As I quickly discovered—a sickening discovery that killed whatever Zionism I still felt—the reason the ADL had set its spies on me was because, while a student at Berkeley in the ’80s, I’d protested against apartheid.

Protesting South African apartheid in the 1980s was practically a middle-class duty in the Bay Area. Even yuppies and mainstream Republicans supported the protest movement. It was an easy choice. No one in their right mind wanted to be associated with the Jim Crow/George Wallace faces in those old black-and-white newsreels.

So why would Israel cozy up to the vilest regime since the Third Reich? One clue can be found in a speech given in 1987 by Eliahu Lankin, Israel’s former ambassador to South Africa, at Tel Aviv University. In it, he warned that South African blacks “want to gain control over the white majority just like the Arabs here want to gain control over us. And we, too, like the white minority in South Africa, must act to prevent them from taking us over.” Then there was the looming specter of divestment. In 1986, thanks to a massive and sustained student-protest movement, University of California Regents were forced to divest $3 billion from investments related to South Africa. Some within the ADL apparently believed the same tactic could be used by U.S. opponents of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Decades later, these concerns would prove to be well-founded.

A recent book by New York Times editor Sasha Polakow-Suransky, Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship With Apartheid South Africa, traces the beginnings of Israel’s friendship with apartheid South Africa back even further, to Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres’ secret visit to Pretoria in 1974. This was a meeting that led to arms deals and agreements over intelligence sharing.

In 1976, South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster was given the red-carpet treatment by Israel’s Labor government leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. They gave him a guided tour of the Wailing Wall and the Holocaust Museum, despite the fact that Vorster had been a Nazi sympathizer in the ’30s, and had even served as a commander in theOssewabrandwag, a pro-Nazi militant group.

By 1986, the relationship between Israel and South Africa had grown so close that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 March 2014 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Mideast Conflict

The free market in action: The attack on Herbalife

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Anything—absolutely anything—that results in a profit is allowed under the free market idea. Michael Schmidt, Eric Lipton, and Alexandra Stevenson write in the NY Times:

At a Midtown Manhattan steakhouse last June, William A. Ackman, the activist hedge fund manager who had bet a billion dollars on the collapse of the nutritional supplement company Herbalife, offered his latest evidence to a handful of other hedge fund managers about why the company’s stock could soon plummet.

Mr. Ackman told his dinner companions that Representative Linda T. Sánchez, Democrat of California, had sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission the previous day calling for an investigation of the company.

The commission had not yet stamped the letter as received, nor had it been made public. But Mr. Ackman, who had personally lobbied Ms. Sánchez and stood to profit if the company’s stock dropped as a result of the call for an inquiry, already knew what it said, and read from a copy of it that he had on his cellphone.

When Ms. Sánchez’s office ultimately issued a news release a month later, it was backdated as though it had been made public the day before Mr. Ackman’s dinner talk.

The letter was a small hint of Mr. Ackman’s extraordinary attempt to leverage the corridors of power — in Washington, state capitols and city halls — for his hedge fund’s profit after taking a $1 billion financial position called a short, a bet that will pay off only if Herbalife’s stock drops.

Corporate money is forever finding new ways to influence government. But Mr. Ackman’s campaign to take this fight “to the end of the earth,” using every weapon in the arsenal that Washington offers in an attempt to bring ruin to one company, is a novel one, fusing the financial markets with the political system.

Others have criticized the business practices of Herbalife, a company that sells vitamins and other health supplements through independent distributors, many of whom are lower-income Latinos or African-Americans. But Mr. Ackman’s attack is unprecedented in its scale, and Herbalife officials strongly deny his accusations that the company is a pyramid scheme that stays afloat by constantly recruiting new distributors.

To pressure state and federal regulators to investigate Herbalife, an act that alone could cause its stock to dive, his team has helped organize protests, news conferences and letter-writing campaigns in California, Nevada, Connecticut, New York and Illinois, although several of the people who signed the letters to state and federal officials say they do not remember sending them, an investigation by The New York Times has found.

His team has also paid civil rights organizations at least $130,000 to join his effort by helping him collect the names of people who claimed they were victimized by Herbalife in order to send the leads to regulators, the investigation found. Mr. Ackman’s team also provided the money used by some of these individuals to travel to Washington to participate in a rally against Herbalife last month.

Herbalife has mobilized its own army of lobbyists to defend itself against Mr. Ackman’s charges. “These accusations are provably false,” said Herbalife’s chief financial officer, John G. DeSimone. “And they can all be traced back to the same source: hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, who is motivated by one thing — getting even richer by winning a billion-dollar bet he made against our company, by any means possible, no matter how unscrupulous.”

The feud has touched off a bidding war of sorts, emails obtained by The Times show, as the advocacy groups have in some cases pressed Mr. Ackman’s team and Herbalife to contribute more money in exchange for their allegiance.

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

 Mr. Ackman’s efforts illustrate how Washington is increasingly becoming a battleground of Wall Street’s financial titans, whose interest in influencing public policy is driven primarily by a desire for profit.

The government’s appropriate role is to act in the interests of the general welfare, not in order to produce private profits. Using a government office for personal profit is the definition of corruption, and this effort comes close.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 March 2014 at 11:11 am

Posted in Business, Government

Some improvement with new boar

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SOTD 10 Mar 2014

I using the Omega R&B brush exclusively this week, to see whether its break-in will make it more accommodating of lather. I got a very nice lather with my Institut Karité 25% shea butter shaving soap, and had three good passes with the vintage Merkur Slant holding a Swedish Gillette blade.

The lather lasted, but was failing, and when I tried lathering a fourth time the results were disappointing—but the fact is that the first three passes went well. It’s as though the brush is getting better at supporting lather.

The ATG pass required some work, so I replaced the blade following the shave. Still, I got a very fine shave, and a dot of IK aftershave balm was quite pleasant. I don’t like the initial feeling on my face, but it dries (or is absorbed) quickly, and within a few minutes the face feels very good to the touch.

Tomorrow: Same brush, another soap.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 March 2014 at 9:24 am

Posted in Shaving

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