Science always has been, and always will be, political

Inevitably, with the announcement of The March for Science on Earth Day, April 22nd of this year, come the inevitable naysayers decrying the politicization of science. Astroturf groups such as ACSH (diversity excludes white dudes and scientists from industry!), have of course decried the effort as a liberal conspiracy, but I was sad to see even the New York Times found a scientist to rain on our parade.

A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.

The problem is that science is inextricably a political endeavor, always has been and always will be. That does not, however, mean it should ideological, these “apolitical” critics just fail to understand or express that ideology is the real problem. Politics doesn’t have to be ideological either, it’s perfectly possible to find solutions to problems based on data and evidence rather than “beliefs”. In the interests of promoting a March for science, which is a worthy endeavor, let’s put this “politics” argument to rest forever.

Science has always been political. Even before the scientific method was described, knowledge was political power. In the modern era, spending on science, therefore control of science, is in the hands of politicians. Science is the basis of modern healthcare which extends all of our lives. And finally, science is political because it informs politics, whether people want to hear the answers or not.

Science has been political forever

Everyone has heard of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and the lesson of Icarus flying too close to the sun, an allegory for failing to heed warnings, or carelessness of youth. (Image Wikimedia) But the real lesson of this myth is ignored in popular culture, and informs this debate. We never talk about why Daedalus was in prison in the first place!

In the Greek myth of Theseus, the inventor and technical genius Daedalus plays a complex role symbolizing the fraught relationship between knowledge and power. First, he (possibly) plays a role enabling the conception of the Minotaur, to the shame of king Minos who forces him to make a labyrinth to contain the human/bull hybrid. The labyrinth is then used by Minos for killing the children of conquered Athens, Hunger Games style, 14 tributes every nine years. Daedalus then undermines Minos again by providing Theseus and Ariadne a trick for solving the labyrinth with string, and finally, imprisoned, with Icarus, for his careless use of knowledge against Minos (or to keep the labyrinth’s secrets), he escapes using wings he constructs of feathers and beeswax, losing his son. The fatal flaw that propels Daedalus from disaster to tragedy is his thoughtless application of knowledge. He provides knowledge and inventions without regard for the consequences of their use. He represents intelligence without wisdom.

Daedalus is also an allegory for the relationship with science and power. Science can aide the powerful for good or for evil (killing Athenian children for instance), and Daedalus is a tragic because he fails to account for how his knowledge will be used. He seems to think he will be immune to the politics.

Now, consider from the previous century, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. After seeing the potential ruin nuclear weapons could visit upon the world, he devoted his post-war years to non-proliferation and control of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes such as power generation. Einstein too, and many of the Manhattan project leaders saw the importance of acknowledging the importance of politics in how the creations of science are used in the face of such immensely powerful technology. As scientists, and citizens, they realized they had a responsibility not just provide powerful technology to politicians and step aside, but to make sure their creations were vehicles for more than gross destruction and human malevolence.

Control of Science is in the purse

Then you must consider the modern role of government as an engine of discovery. Since the Manhattan project there have been numerous examples of government-funded collaborations with the sciences with world-changing results. We tend to remember the big projects, like the moon landing or the human genome project (which one must note was basically scooped by private industry research), but we forget that government is also the major engine of basic science research. Industry spends more research dollars overall than government, but they only spend half as much as the government does on basic research . (NSF Data via SSTI) This is a shame, as labs like Bell labs have won numerous Nobel prizes for basic science research (they invented the transistor – all modern solid state electronics depend on this!), but Bell notably ended its basic research program in Physics in 2008.the first transistor.  Really. The first transistor. Really. And it’s basic research that opens up new frontiers in human knowledge and revolutionizes scientific fields. For instance who would have predicted that Isidor Rabi, a physicist (and immigrant) working on nuclear magnetic resonance would make discoveries that would revolutionize medical imaging with MRI? Or how research into antibodies in the 70s at Cambridge would result in monoclonal antibodies (another Nobel prize), a revolution in diagnostics and therapies from human transplant to cancer. Or how about unexpected consequences of goal-directed funding? Who would have predicted research efforts poured into understanding HIV (more Nobel prizes) would teach us about how to manipulate the immune system for immunotherapeutics? In the last 20 years we’ve opened a whole new world of gene regulation, and likely a new therapeutic revolution with Mello and Fire’s discovery of RNAi (from their control dsRNA no less) another revolutionary discovery in a basic science lab. Electronics, computers, the internet, modern medicines, communications, all of these things were birthed from basic science discoveries, and almost all can be tied to government, university and industry scientists who had no idea what the application of their ideas may one day bring.

So, surely the government unabashedly supports basic science then right? Not so much. Congressional representatives and Senators routinely mock the government as wasteful for basic science funding. The most egregious examples tend to come from Rand Paul and Jeff Flake, who publish lists of scientific grants they consider “wasteful” but invariably on closer inspection have been described incorrectly, out of context, or fundamentally misunderstood. Many scientists have become fearful about their work being taken out of context in this fashion, and are forced to construct their grants into narrower and safer language whenever possible. The sequester was further devastating to research funding, and poor leadership has seen paylines at agencies like NIH drop dramatically (meaning fewer researchers/grants get funded) while the cost of administration and funding for the offices of the director at NIH have increased exponentially from a few million a year to > 100 million. We have failed, politically, to explain the benefits of basic science to the public and to our representatives in government, and failed to defend our colleagues from misrepresentation of their work for cheap political gain by small-minded demagogues.

The transactional nature of Trumps worldview is anti-thetical to basic science. Basic science is an investment in exploration, and can not guarantee specific results. We know we need basic science to learn new things, and we need to learn new things in order to propel our medicine, our technology, and our economy into the future. I also sincerely doubt he can appreciate basic science as he appears to be pathologically incurious, exhibits below-average knowledge from history to basic biology and medicine, and seems actively hostile to intellect, seeming to believe anyone who espouses knowledge he does not have is lying. Because that is what he does, he lies, repeatedly, consistently, to the point even the paper of record, the NYT has described him as lying on the front page of their paper, which is historically unprecedented (or unpresidented as it were). We need to march to reassert the importance of exploration, of curiosity, and of intellectualism, against leadership which denigrates these virtues.

Science provides answers to political questions, often providing answers no one wants to hear

Then, there are the representatives who go beyond misrepresentation, and are actively hostile to science, namely where science and certain ideologies collide. Evolution, Vaccines, GMO, global warming, all have the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community on their side, but are attacked, from the left and the right, using the same denialist tactics. Some of them, like James Inhofe, are cranks who deny multiple fields of science from vaccines to global warming (and makes jokes about being a Holocaust denier too).

Here’s Inhofe with, no joke, a snowball in winter, declaring it proof global warming is a hoax.

These are the people representing us in congress. People who presume to be wise on matters of science, but, as in this example, still can’t distinguish between “climate” and “weather”. In other words, incompetents.

Then there is the science proscribed by ideology. Research into gun violence for instance is vastly underfunded for how serious a public health crisis it is.

We know that gun violence spreads like an infectious disease but without funding to see how it can be contained and controlled, we let the disease spread, infect our citizens, and kill them, over and over.

Science has some uncomfortable things to tell people- things people do not want to hear. Like the best way to decrease abortion is to pay for birth control, not ban abortion (there are more abortions in countries where it is illegal Lancet Link). Abstinence education just doesn’t work. Gun violence is a disproportionate problem in the United States and certain laws appear to have decreased the problem by as much as 90% in some states. Now do we have definitive data to suggest that these results can be generalized? No. Because we can’t even fund the studies to find these answers. Note the funding sources for the article just cited, “none”.

Science prolongs our lives

The most self-interested reason to support science is it prolongs our lives. Modern healthcare is science applied to longevity. In the last century we’ve seen the average lifespan double due to improved knowledge. The next public health challenge is making sure all our citizens have access to the healthcare that prolongs life.

We’ve known for over 2 decades that lack of health insurance increases mortality. This is an effect that has been consistently observed in the following decades. It extends not just to chronic health problems but even to unexpected medical problems such as trauma and even in child trauma victims. Being insured saves lives. Lacking insurance causes death at all ages from all sorts of medical problems. The ACA has decreased the uninsured and has undoubtedly saved lives. Loss of insurance coverage will kill people. Is there any political issue more important than life and death? This should be nonpartisan. We need to find a way to make sure healthcare is accessible and paid for, or say we don’t value preservation of life as a society. If that’s the case, it needs to be debated and stated honestly, that’s a possible ideological position, but the data, the science shows that access and insurance saves lives. This debate is enormously complex but there are critical things we know from studying universal health care system. The general findings are that universality saves lives, they save money, they slow cost inflation, and that the US system provides poorer care because of administrative cost, drug costs, and solvable obstacles, not because of the fundamental “quality” of our care.

Summary

The fact is, science is inextricably linked to politics, always has been, always will be. If only because science is a human endeavor, and we are political creatures, science is political. If only because we recognize science is an effective tool for answering questions, including political questions, science is political. If only because the modern model of scientific exploration and discovery is paid for in large part by government, science is political. If only because science drives the health care that keeps us alive, the loudest debate raging today in the halls of power, science is political. And if only because science has provided answers about our bodies, our planet, and our universe that people don’t want to hear, science is political.

So those who ask for science to remain apolitical are either grossly missing the point, as I believe Dr. Young is in his NYT piece, or they are trying to coax scientists into disarray and silence, as I think is typified from the commentary from ACSH. Science can never be apolitical, it’s too powerful a force in our lives to remain divorced from politics. What science must be, however, is non-ideological.

This is where science has gone wrong in the past. For example eugenics was the application of racist ideology to science, and bias was so pervasive that for decades it was accepted into the mainstream, even resulting in state-sponsored sterilization programs. Science has fallen victim to ideology before, and when it has the results have been disastrous. A more modern example? Complementary/altie med infiltrating the NIH. We’ve literally spent billions trying to validate these modalities that are not based on science, that have been forced on us by politicians who have no capacity to judge science and what is the result? After billions of dollars none of these modalities has been validated by rigorous study.

On the individual level, we see scientists fall for ideological traps as well, and suddenly even highly-intelligent, experienced scientists will look like fools. No one is fully immune from ideology, because humans don’t think like scientists by default. Most people form a belief first then gather data to support it. Beliefs are formed in our upbringing, are based on unrealistic ideals, and are solidified for ego protection. People’s belief form who they are, and when scientific facts challenge belief, do you think people change fundamentally who they are? Nope.

Scientific thinking requires one to constantly address one’s own biases, and that is not how we naturally think. When scientists fall from grace, again and again, it’s when their rationality has been poisoned by some political ideology. Even Nobel prize winners have been susceptible to foolish pseudoscience from creationism, to believing in psychic powers, to global warming denialism – hence the “Nobel disease”. Ideological beliefs are a very human flaw and ideology is poison to reason.

Now, how should the March for Science organize without being political? It can’t! Science is inextricably linked to politics at every level, from history, to funding, to the questions it asks to the results it provides. What it can do is be non-ideological. We have to accept the results of science even when they offend our worldview, which should change when they are in conflict with its results. What does that mean? Vaccines work, global warming is real, GMOs are safe, gun violence is a solvable problem, contraception prevents abortion, and universal healthcare saves lives. Let’s let the March for Science be political and let’s divorce our beliefs from ideology and let the data speak to the truth of things.

Two articles, from vastly disparate sources, that do a better job promoting this view are this balanced discussion from Kavin Senapathy at Forbes and Kevin Folta at Huffpo. From the capitalist anti-regulatory right to the nature-worshiping left, we should all agree the data are real, and they will not always agree with our preconceived beliefs or ideologies.

What a conspiracy theorist president means Part 2 – Amanda Marcotte interviews me for Salon

Amanda Marcotte, who I’ve enjoyed reading since her days at Pandagon, was curious about what having a CT president might mean. For some crazy reason, she thought she should ask me about it. Briefly, I tried to summarize the patterns of thought conspiracy theorists engage in, their willingness to accept any belief if confirmatory of their guiding ideology, and their tendency to project their own darkest behaviors onto others. Overall, I thought she provided a great summary of the problem. My only critique would be it’s not all doom and gloom.

One thing we talked about that didn’t make it to the article but is worth mentioning is that America has had really, really bad leadership in the past. For those of you who may want a deeper history of stupid, incompetent, small-minded, bigoted and conspiratorial American political, religious and social movements, I recommend Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Winner of the 1964 Pulitzer for non-fiction, it is an illuminating history of our stupid politics and stupid politicians over the preceding 200 years.

Ultimately, the book is reassuring, our system has sustained significant stresses before (don’t take that to suggest I endorse testing it like this monster surely will). Despite decades of small-minded, ignorant bigots dominating the discourse of our country, the Republic survives; almost as if our founders were clever people who could predict the dangers of demagoguery and illiberal democracy. The history we learn in school is one viewed through rose-tinted glasses, glossing over not just the endless injustices, but also the rank cupidity of our leadership. Most people have the sense that most, if not all of our presidents have been wise, or at least qualified men, with a couple of glaring exceptions. In fact one point Hofstadter makes is that since the founders, our country’s leadership has been in steep intellectual decline, and even the founders themselves were susceptible to attacks of controversy, conspiracy and demagogy. It sounds unbelievable, but even in 1796, people attacked Jefferson for being a wishy-washy intellectual. Hoffstadter quotes a pamphlet released by William Loughton Smith against Jefferson:

The characteristic traits of a philosopher, when he turns politician are timidity, whimsicalness, and a disposition to reason from certain principles, and not from the true nature of man; a proneness to predicate all his measures on certain abstract theories, things and circumstances; an intertness of mind, as applied to governmental policy, a wavering of disposition when great and sudden emergencies demand promptness of decision and energy of action.

You heard it right. Jefferson was “low energy”. If not for the presence of grammar and coherence, this could have been written by our president elect. Hofstadter describes how shortly after the founding of the country, we fell into the politics all of us recognize and love today:

The shabby campaign against Jefferson, and the the Alien and Sedition Acts, manifested the treason of many wealthy and educated Federalists against the cultural values of tolerance and freedom. Unfortunately, it did not follow that more popular parties under Jeffersonian or Jacksonian leadership could be counted on to espouse these values. The popular parties themselves eventually became the vehicles of a kind of primitivist and anti-intellectualist populism hostile to the specialist, the expert, the gentleman, and the scholar.

The ensuing chapters, a history of political movements and their incessant hostility to intellectualism, education, experience, expertise, and liberal values of equality and tolerance, show that if anything, the president-elect is a more typical of American presidents than he is not. The story is of an endless cycle of smart, forward thinking intellectuals and movements of all political persuasions, being torn down, routinely and predictably, by populists espousing bigotry, hatred of elites, and suspicion of education and intelligence.

My personal belief is that the last 60 or so years were the aberration; what little respect we’ve shown for knowledge, scientific progress and expertise was kickstarted by the national fear of Sputnik, and the sudden implication of national survival being dependent on having a thriving educated and technological class. With the end of the cold-war, and our current greatest enemy an anti-modern movement of antediluvian religious fanatics, the pressure to maintain an intellectual elite has waned.

The anti-intellectual populists are back to their same old games – demonizing experience in government, attacking our universities as dens of liberals feminizing our good young men, and electing to power the bigoted dregs of our business class. Despite the technical nature of our current greatest challenge – that of global climate change – the perceived need for technically-competent, scientifically-literate and intellectually sound governance has disappeared. Partly this is due to the anti-intellectual climate denialist movement, which has convinced our morbidly-incurious president elect that climate science is little more than a political game being played by socialist nerds, possibly at the behest of China. But this is also due to the fact that Democrats failed to make the case the climate change, or really that any science was important during this election, and the media happily ignored such real issues to chase meaningless scandal. One question was asked about climate change during the debates and we spent the next week jubilant because the questioner was wearing a red sweater. We don’t have good science debate because we allow ourselves to be distracted from the issues. The Office of Technology Assessment is no more, meanwhile Al Gore invented the internet, John Kerry is an effete wimp, and misuse of email is the only disqualifying sin for a presidential candidate.

In all the finger-pointing after the election no single reason is satisfactory to explain why we have once again devolved into the populist bigotry which was for so long our normal. It is clear though, the electorate no longer feels the expert class shares their values or their interests. While electing a kakistocracy is not a rational solution to that problem, they felt they had no other choice, they weren’t being listened to, a significant portion of the population is not satisfied with government by a competent, professional intellectual like Obama or the obstinate, do-nothing Republican opposition. This is the most important lesson for those who wish for a government by thoughtful experts to return. We can not make the coming political struggle about the man, the personality, the corruption, or the bigotry. Clearly, these were not obstacles to the president-elect’s success. There is no reason to think that in four years this will be any different. The electorate clearly likes or at least tolerates these personality flaws because they perceive the president elect cares about them. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant.

Luigi Zingales wrote a compelling piece in the NYT laying out the best shot for a successful strategy and it’s based on the long series of failures in stopping Trump’s Italian analogue, Silvio Berlusconi. Repeatedly his opponents tried to make it about the man, and failed, because they couldn’t get past that his supporters just did not care that he was a terrible, terrible person. They still liked him.

Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.

And an opposition focused on personality would crown Mr. Trump as the people’s leader of the fight against the Washington caste. It would also weaken the opposition voice on the issues, where it is important to conduct a battle of principles.

Instead Zingales emphasizes Berlusconi’s only electoral losses came from opponents who made elections about the issues, not the man:

Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character. In different ways, both of them are seen as outsiders, not as members of what in Italy is defined as the political caste.

We should not forget that the president-elect’s nomination was a rejection of Republicans and their strategy of obstinance just as his election was a rejection of Democrats, and their supposed identity politics. That this election represents rejection of reason, science, tolerance and decency is now moot, Democrats failed to convince enough of the electorate their policies would actually be superior for them personally. They failed to make the case for science, for climate realism, or that solutions to these problems can be of benefit to ordinary people. This should not have been hard. It should not be difficult to convince people their underpaid jobs for dangerous, polluting industries can be replaced with something better, nor should it be challenging to explain why protecting wages, workers, environments and communities is a bad thing, but the Democrats barely tried to make this election a case for economic progress, technological advancement and environmental protection.

The solution will be candidates who effectively make the case that government by the competent, the learned, and the experienced can be of palpable benefit to ordinary voters – not just an expression of right and moral thinking. And should that be so much to ask?

John Oliver, right on drug rep influence

It is amazing how powerful a free lunch is. And the data are real, that people tend to favor those who do nice things for them. That is why, despite new rules about the amount drug companies can give to doctors, or all the rules on disclosure, the pharma reps are always going to push the boundary to try to gain any advantage because it results in real world financial benefits to pharmaceutical companies.

Leave it to John Oliver to nail this. Reps are pervasive. They are influential. Their influence comes not necessarily from the right impulses of science and data, but from attractiveness and free food.

Since I’m a surgical resident, I am mostly immune to this kind of temptation. Not because I’m some kind of special human. Its because I only prescribe a tiny set of medications. In fact only really prescribe one type of drug – pain killers – because I’m a surgeon. I have no business screwing with people’s other meds. At the same time I get invitations to free dinners hosted by these companies designed to tempt even lowly residents like me into changing our prescribing practices. Oliver is right, these things happen.

My joy in this is, if I ever take up one of these offers, all I get is information about drugs I’ll never prescribe and an opportunity to antagonize drug reps, which I usually find entertaining. I have gone to them, gleefully, as I literally prescribe only 1-2 drugs ever, and they can tell me about whatever they want, it is totally irrelevant to me, and hey I get free food! Suckers. As a resident you search out free meals, it’s a matter of survival. If you bring a resident within arm’s reach of a shrimp platter it will be destroyed because we’re hungry and we feel the world owes us for all the other crap we have to endure.

So yes, this is a real. And while the idea there is a quid pro quo relationship is a wild exaggeration, we know, psychologically and because drug companies spend money on this that these tactics work. Money spent on advertising is effective. Money spent on wooing doctors to one prescription vs another will tempt enough to be profitable. I will show up and listen to a drug rep talk about their drug for a candy bar. The difference is, I prescribe almost no medications, so, at least in my case, it’s a losing investment for the reps. For most doctors who have to deal with these influences all the time, I’m sympathetic, it’s easier to listen to an attractive person bearing a free lunch than it is to independently investigate every new drug that is dropped on the market. And to be fair, this isn’t always a bad thing. We need to know about which products are out there and which are most effective for our patients. But a situation in which the drug company with the best reps, or the best market share, or saturation of the market, or whatever, wins, is not necessarily what is best for the patient.

There is a simple solution. Ban the practice of using drug reps and food. It’s not like pharmaceutical companies are selling placebos like herbal supplements. They aren’t devastated by the loss of advertisement. Usually what they’re doing is trying to push equivalent (but usually more expensive) medications, or gain market share for some slight advantage, or advertise some niche they think their drug should enjoy, or some off-label use that some physician should think a lot harder about before they decide it’s appropriate. We’ll still have access to the same meds, but the decisions will be based on things like journal articles, data and research. Instead of diverting money into advertising and drug reps bearing food (I am so jealous I’m not the type of doctor that gets all this free food), maybe they’ll spend the money on the research that bears results that should influence physicians in a legitimate fashion. If the only influence they have to bear is copies of peer-reviewed journal articles you will be sure docs are making these decisions based on the right information.

So let’s ban drug company practices which seek to influence physicians based on meals and perks rather than data. Let’s ban direct to consumer advertising too, because you know who is even easier to influence? The lay public who have little to no access or knowledge to interpret and understand the literature on appropriate treatments for illnesses. The United States is the only country that allows this, because basically every other country figured out long ago it is a terrible idea. Let’s stop all drug advertising period. If a drug company wants doctors to prescribe a drug, they should use the scientific literature to justify its use. Not free food, or stupid advertisements with animated bees, or smiling happy people pushing their kids on swings. Drug reps, if anything, should show up with papers, not sandwiches.

This is a gimme. While people shouldn’t overblow the effect here – most physicians have a great deal of skepticism to claims from reps and are very reluctant to change practice unless they provide good data – there is clearly some influence, and it’s not based on legitimate enticements, which are data, and the interests of our patients.

In other news, herbal supplements are truly placebos

My favorite news story of the week, herbal supplements don’t contain anything at all apparently. Why should we be surprised that big placebo is selling placebos?

The authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart — and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.

Industry representatives have argued that any problems are caused by a handful of companies on the fringe of the industry. But New York’s investigation specifically targeted store brands at the nation’s drugstore and retail giants, which suggests that the problems are widespread.

Heartwarming.

Excellent GMO debate hosted at Intelligence Squared – a summary

The GMO debate hosted by Intelligent Squared was excellent and informative. I admit I learned things from listening and that’s always a bonus, but it’s worth watching to see the “respectable” arguments against GMO posed and dealt with very effectively by the pro-side in this debate. Spoiler alert, the pro-GMO side spanked the anti-GMO, going from 30% pre-debate in support of GMO (~30% against and 38% undecided) to 60% in support of GMO post-debate with anti-GMO only climbing 1% to 31. While voting on points of science and data is largely irrelevant, science is not democratic, it is reassuring to see that when the arguments are laid out it’s clear which side convincingly has science on its side. It also suggests that maybe the audience didn’t enter as polarized as one might expect.  And Bill Nye (who is a bit foolish on this issue) makes a cameo in the audience, and asks the first question.  I wonder if he was one of the 60%?  He’s being cagey about it on his twitter account.

It’s a bit long so I can summarize the dominant points. From the pro-side led by Robert Fraley
Executive VP & Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto and Alison Van Eenennaam Genomics and Biotechnology Researcher, UC Davis:

1.  This is a promising technology, still early in its potential, which has the benefit of solving problems with food-security such as plant disease, pests, and need for fertilizers, and may have future productivity and environmental benefit  by allowing greater yields from existing farmland.  Some of these benefits have already been realized like the rescue of the papaya.

2. It has direct benefits for the environment by encouraging no-till farming and decreased pesticide use (roundup-ready and bt products).

3. It is not necessary to see the issue as one of GMO vs conventional breeding as the technology is used in addition to conventional techniques

4. Resistance is a problem with all technologies, including conventional pesticides and herbicides, that’s not a good reason not to pursue a technology as you wouldn’t use that as an excuse to stop investigating new antibiotics.  Evolution happens.

5.  There is a broad scientific consensus that the technology is safe including organizations such as NAS, AAS and the Royal Academy as well as numerous other international scientific bodies.  Extensive research on safety and experience since implementation in 1997 do not suggest any harm despite consumption by billions – this was acknowledged by the anti-side as well.

6. There is not a believable hypothesis or theory that can describe how the technology will cause a specific harm to human or animal health and that has been borne out by studies so far.

 

From the anti-side led by Charles Benbrook Research Professor, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources and Margaret Mellon Science Policy Consultant & Fmr. Senior Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists:

1. The technology has not lived up to the hype, lots of promising technology is “in the pipeline” but we’ve only seen a handful of beneficial products and no game-changers for agriculture.

2. The early promise of the technology is the basis for much of the pro-GMO arguments, as time has gone on resistance of weeds and pests has limited the economic and yield benefits.

3. The technology results in resistant weeds and bugs, and increased spraying of herbicides which may impact human health (although they agree they have no data to back this up)

4. Pursuing GMO distracts from better conventional breeding strategies to deal with problems such as drought, and disease.

5. There may be harms from the technology that may not become evident over the time scales we have observed so far.

6. We have seen ecological harm in some animal populations such as the monarch butterfly, and bees.

7. Safety profiles haven’t taken into account the rapid roll-out of new technologies as the products are progressively altered with each generation and “stacked”.  And the safety studies have not been as thorough as critics have suggested they should be.

There is a lot of back-and-forth on all of these points, and the pro-side does a good job frankly dismantling each of them.

Overall I agree with the audience, the anti-side does not provide a compelling argument not to pursue the technology, nor do they provide a mechanism for a realistic theoretical harm, other than some vague idea that over huge timescales maybe something will come up.  In particular the argument from Charles Benbrook that we should only pay attention to products on the market so far, and ignore the potential future applications I found galling and just pure Luddism.  This is still a relatively new technology as applied to agriculture, although in medicine, as the pro-side points out, we have fully incorporated GM treatments in the form of insulin and other biologics which have revolutionized many fields of medicine and will likely revolutionize many more including cancer, heart disease (the new anti-cholesterol drugs being investigated are GE-biologics), etc.  Multiple times they push a false equivalence that somehow GM takes away from conventional techniques, which is hotly, and effectively countered by the pro-side who both point out that a majority of their research still is based on conventional techniques.  Finally the suggestion of harm to the monarch butterfly is a side-effect of the herbicide resistant crops being more effective (less milkweed = less food for monarchs) and the suggested link to bee die-offs is completely specious.  I am left somewhat confused, as always, over the debate about whether GM has truly resulted in a decreased use of chemical pesticides, according to the anti-side, the good data on those benefits are from early in the application of the technology, and the benefit has decreased or reversed over time.  They do not present data, or evidence from peer-reviewed literature on this claim, however, saying “if you talk to farmers”.  Thus I credit this as low level evidence for their side.  Consistently the pro-side discusses results from the peer-reviewed literature, the anti-side is really presenting a “god of the gaps” argument and argument from uncertainty.

 

What do you guys think?

Psychics like Sylvia Brown are immoral frauds

In the wake of the dramatic events surrounding the discovery of three women including Amanda Berry, being held captive for a decade by a monster, it’s important not to forget another sociopath played a role in this drama. That sociopath is the psychic who told Amanda Berry’s mother that her daughter was dead:

Her mother, Louwana Miller, never gave up hope that the girl known as Mandy was still alive, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The case attracted national attention when Miller went on Montel Williams’s nationally syndicated television show in 2004 and consulted a psychic.

“She’s not alive, honey,” the psychic said. “Your daughter’s not the kind who wouldn’t call.”

After Berry’s mother died in 2006, there were occasional clues in the search for Berry, and police have conducted a number of searches over the years. All proved fruitless — until Monday night, when Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were rescued from the house in Cleveland.

As Ben Goldacre reminds us, that psychic was Sylvia Brown, speaking out of her ass, surely “just for entertainment purposes” when she told Louwana Miller her daughter was dead. As the Wiki shows, her predictions aren’t reliable, and not surprisingly, she has a history of criminal behavior, including indictments and convictions for fraud and grand theft.

Psychics are by definition frauds. They don’t have magic powers. No human has the ability to read minds or see into the future. If you then take money under such known false pretenses that is the definition of fraud. If they truly do think they have magic powers, they should submit themselves to James Randi’s 1 million dollar paranormal challenge to determine if they can perform in a blinded, controlled test (which none of these frauds has ever come close to passing). Not surprisingly, Sylvia Brown has refused, many times, to take this challenge. This is because psychics know they’re frauds. Worse, Brown has even been previously convicted of fraud but sadly not for giving psychic readings. As a criminal, I guess she smartened up since 1992, the question is, why don’t we treat all psychics as criminals all the time? The burden of proof should be on them to prove they have this exceptional ability under controlled circumstances. Until then, we should simply arrest people that take money from others on the basis of such lies.

The Good, Not So Good, and Long View on Bmail

Denialism blog readers, especially those at academic institutions that have/are considering outsourcing email, may be interested in my essay on UC Berkeley’s migration to Gmail.  This is cross-posted from the Berkeley Blog.

Many campuses have decided to outsource email and other services to “cloud” providers.  Berkeley has joined in by migrating student and faculty to bMail, operated by Google.  In doing so, it has raised some anxiety about privacy and autonomy in communications.  In this post, I outline some advantages of our outsourcing to Google, some disadvantages, and how we might improve upon our IT outsourcing strategy, especially for sensitive or especially valuable materials.

Why outsourcing matters

Many of us welcome possible alternatives to CalMail, which experienced an embarrassing, protracted outage in fall 2011.  Many of us welcomed the idea of migrating to Gmail, because we use it personally, have found it user-friendly and reliable, and because it is provided by a hip company that all of our students want to work for.

But did we really look before we leaped?  Did we really consider the special context of higher education, one that requires us to protect both students and faculty from outside meddling and university-specific security risks?  Before deciding to outsource, we have to be sure that there are service providers that understand our obligations, norms, and the academic context.

In part because of the university’s particular role, our email is important and can be unusually sensitive to a variety of threats.  Researchers at Berkeley are conducting clinical trials with confidential data and patient information.  We are developing new drugs and technologies that are extremely valuable.  Some of us perform research that is classified, export-controlled, or otherwise could, if misused, cause great harm.  Some of us consult to Fortune 500 companies, serve as lawyers with duties of confidentiality, or serve as advisors to the government.  Some of us are the targets of extremist activists who try to embarrass us or harm us physically.  Some of us are critical of companies and repressive governments.  These entities are motivated to find out the identities of our correspondents and our strategic thinking, through either legal or technical means.  And not least, our email routinely contains communications with students about their progress, foibles, and other sensitive information, including information protected by specific privacy laws, such as the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). We have both legal and ethical duties to protect this information.

Our CalMail operators know these things, and as I understand it, they have been very careful in protecting the privacy of campus communications. Outsourcing providers such as Google however, may be far less likely to be familiar with our specific duties, norms, and protocols, or to have in place procedures to implement them. Outsource providers may be motivated to provide services that they can develop and serve “at scale” and that do not require special protocols. As described below, this seems to have been the case with Google’s contracts with academic institutions.

Finally, communications platforms are powerful.  They are the focus of government surveillance and control because those who control communications can influence how people think and how they organize.  Universities have historically experienced periodic pressures to limit research, publication, teaching, and speech. Without communications confidentiality, integrity, and availability, the quality of our freedom and the role we play in society suffers.  And thus the decision to entrust the valuable thoughts of our community to outsiders requires some careful consideration.

The Good

There are some clear benefits to outsourcing to Google.  They include:

  • An efficient, user-friendly communications system with a lot of storage.  The integration of Google Apps, such as Calendar, is particularly appealing, given the experience we have had with CalAgenda.  Google Drive is a pleasure compared to the awkward AFS.
  • Our communications may in some senses be more securely stored in the hands of Google.  Google has some of the best information security experts in the world.  They are experienced in addressing sophisticated, state-actor-level attacks against their network.  To its credit, Google has been more transparent about these attacks than other companies.
  • Although it is not implemented at Berkeley, Google offers two-factor authentication.  This is an important security benefit not offered by CalMail that could reduce the risk that our accounts are taken over by others.  Those of us using sensitive data, or who are at risk of retaliation by governments, hackers, activists, etc., should use two-factor authentication.
  • As a provider of services to the general public, Google is subject to a key federal communications privacy law.  This law imposes basic obligations on Google when data are sought by the government or private parties.  It is not clear that this law binds the operations of colleges and universities generally.  However, this factor is not very important with respect to the Berkeley’s adoption of bMail, as we have adopted a strongelectronic communications policy protecting emails systemwide.
  • Google recently announced that it will require government agents to obtain a probable cause warrant for user content.  This is important, because other providers release “stale” (that is, over 180 days old) data to government investigators with a mere subpoena.  A subpoena is very easy to obtain, whereas a probable cause warrant standard requires the involvement of a judge, an important check against overzealous law enforcement.  Google’s position protects us from the problem that our email archives can be obtained by many government officials who need only fill out and stamp a one-page form.

The Not So Good

Still, there are many reasons why outsourcing, and outsourcing to Google specifically, creates new risks.  While our IT professionals did an in-depth analysis of Google and Microsoft, it seems that the decision to outsource was taken before the reality of the alternatives available to us were evaluated.

  • We must consider issues around contract negotiations and whether services provided fulfill the requirements I set forth above. In initial negotiations, Google treated Berkeley IT professionals like ordinary consumers—it presented take-it-or–leave-it contracts.  Google was resistant to, though it eventually accepted, assuming obligations under FERPA, a critical concession for colleges and universities.  Google also used a gag clause in its negotiations with schools.  This made it difficult for our IT professionals to learn from other campuses about the nuances of outsourcing to Google.  As a result, much of what we know about how other campuses protected the privacy of their students and faculty is rumor that cannot be invoked, as it implicitly violates the gag clause.
  • On the most basic level, we should pause to consider that both companies the campus considered for outsourcing are the subject of 20-year consent decrees for engaging in deceptive practices surrounding privacy and/or security.  Google in particular, with its maximum transparency ideology, does not seem to have a corporate culture that appreciates the special context of professional secrecy.  The company is not only a fountainhead of privacy gaffes but also benefits from shaping users’ activities towards greater disclosure.
  • As discussed above, UC and Berkeley routinely handle very sensitive information, and many of us on campus have special obligations or particularized vulnerabilities.  Companies with valuable secrets do not place crown jewels in clouds.  When they do outsource, they typically buy “single-tenant” clouds, computers where a single client’s data resides on the machine.  Google’s service is a “multi-tenant” cloud, and thus Berkeley data will only be separated from others on a logical level.  Despite the contract negotiation, Google’s is a consumer-level service and our contract has features of that type of service.  There is a rumor that one state school addressed this issue by negotiating to be placed in Google’s government-grade cloud service, but because of the secrecy surrounding Google’s negotiations, I cannot verify this.
  • Third parties are a threat to communications privacy, but so are first parties—communications providers themselves.  While we may perceive cloud services as being akin to a locker that the user secures, in reality these are services where the provider can open the door to the locker.  In some cases, there is a technical justification for this, in other cases, companies have some business justification, such as targeting advertising or engaging in analysis of user data.
  • It is rumored that some campuses understood this risk, and negotiated a “no data mining clause.”  This would guarantee that Google would not use techniques to infer knowledge about users’ relationships with others or the content of messages.  Despite our special responsibilities to students to protect their information and our research and other requirements, we lack this guarantee.
  • Despite the good news about Google’s warrant requirement, we still need to consider intelligence agency monitoring of our data.  Any time data leaves the country, our government (and probably others) captures it at the landing stations and at repeater stations deep under the ocean.  And the bad news is our contract does not keep Berkeley data in the U.S.  Even while stored in the country, there are risks.  For instance, the government could issue a national security letter to Google, demanding access to hundreds or even thousands of accounts while prohibiting notice to university counsel.  Prior to outsourcing, those demands would have to be delivered to university officials because our IT professionals had the data.  Again, to its credit, Google is one of the most forthcoming companies on the national security letter issue, and its reporting on the topic indicates that some accounts have been subject to such requests.
  • Google represented that its service meets a SAS 70 standard in response to security concerns, but it is not clear to me that this certification is even relevant.    SAS 70 speaks to the internal controls of an organization, and specifically to data integrity in the financial services context.  The University’s concerns are broader–confidentiality and availability are key elements–and apply to both external and internal controls and the University’s rights to monitor and verify.  There are notable examples of SAS 70 compliant cloud services with extreme security lapses, such as Epsilon (confidentiality) and AWS (availability).  SAS 70 allows the company, which is the client of the auditor, and the auditor itself, to agree upon what controls are to be assured.
  • Google will have few if any incentives to develop privacy-enhancing technologies for our communications platform, such as a workable encryption infrastructure.  As it stands, the contract creates no incentives or requirements for development of such technologies, and in fact, such development runs counter to Google’s interests.
  • In the end, CalMail was being very effectively maintained by only a few employees. It is not clear to me that an outsourced solution—which, in order for the security and other issues to be managed properly, requires Berkeley personnel to interface with the system and with Google—is necessarily less costly. This is especially concerning in light of the fact that we appear to have lost the connection to IT personnel who understand the sensitivity of the data we handle, and moved to a much more consumer-oriented product.

The long view

Looking ahead, we should carefully consider how we could assume the best posture for outsourcing. Instead of experimenting with Google, we would be better served by an evaluation of the campus needs that includes regulatory and ethical obligations and that captures the norms and values of our mission.  Provider selection should be broader than choosing between Google and Microsoft.

As a first step, we should charge our IT leadership with forming formal alliances with other institutions to jointly share information and negotiate with providers.  Google’s gag provision harmed our ability to both recognize risks and to address them.

We need to be less infatuated with “the cloud,” which to some extent is a marketing fad.  Many of the putative benefits of the cloud are disclaimed in these services’ terms of service.  For instance, a 2009 survey of 31 contracts found that, “…In effect, a number of providers of consumer-oriented Cloud services appear to disclaim the specific fitness of their services for the purpose(s) for which many customers will have specifically signed up to use them.”  The same researchers found that providers’ business models were related to the generosity of terms.  This militates towards providers that charge some fee for service as opposed to “free” ones that monetize user data.

We should charge our IT professionals with the duty of documenting problems with outsourced services.  To more objectively understand the cloud phenomenon, we should track the real costs associated with outsourcing, including outages, the costs of managing the relationship with Google, and the technical problems that users experience.  Outsourcing is not costless.  We could learn that employees have simply been transferred from the operation of CalMail to the management of bMail.  We should not assume that systems mean fewer people—they may appropriately require meaningful staffing to fulfill our needs. As the expiration date ofsystem wide Google contract approaches in June 2015, these metrics will help us make an economical decision.

Finally, there are technical approaches that, if effective, could blunt, but not completely eliminate, the privacy problems created by cloud services.  Encryption tools, such asCipherCloud, exist to mask data from Google itself.  This can help hide the content of messages, reduce data mining risks from Google, and cause the government to have to come to Berkeley officials to gain access to content.  The emergence of these services indicates that there is a shared concern about storing even everyday emails in cloud services.  These services cost real money, but if we continue to think we can save money by handing over our communications systems to data mining companies, we are likely to end up paying in other ways.

Bittman changes his tune on Sugar Study, while Mother Jones Doubles Down

There’s been an interesting edit in Marc Bittman’s sugar post, as he has now changed his tune on the PLoS one sugar study, now Bittman acknowledges obesity too is important. That was big of him, it is after all, the most important factor. Maybe my angry letter to the editor had an effect, but he’s grudgingly changed this statement:

In other words, according to this study, obesity doesn’t cause diabetes: sugar does.

To:

In other words, according to this study, it’s not just obesity that can cause diabetes: sugar can cause it, too, irrespective of obesity. And obesity does not always lead to diabetes.

The second sentence is totally unnecessary. Of course obesity doesn’t always cause diabetes, or heart attack or whatever. Nor do cigarettes always cause lung cancer. Nor does sugar intake always lead to obesity or diabetes. But obesity is the primary cause of type two diabetes, just as cigarettes are the primary cause of lung cancer, and who knows what sugar is doing.

Mother Jones, sadly, has decided to double down, calling the PLoS One study the “Best. Diet. Study. Ever.” It’s not, of course. It’s merely interesting and suggestive of an effect. It is not nearly proof of causation. They also laud the Mediterranean diet study (maybe it was supposed to be the Best. Study. Ever.?), however, they again show they’re not actually reading these papers because if you read our coverage of the study you’d know they didn’t actually study the Mediterranean diet! In a case of the blind leading the blind, they quote Bittman’s misinformed piece on the Mediterranean diet study

Let’s cut to the chase: The diet that seems so valuable is our old friend the “Mediterranean” diet (not that many Mediterraneans actually eat this way). It’s as straightforward as it is un-American: low in red meat, low in sugar and hyperprocessed carbs, low in junk. High in just about everything else — healthful fat (especially olive oil), vegetables, fruits, legumes and what the people who designed the diet determined to be beneficial, or at least less-harmful, animal products; in this case fish, eggs and low-fat dairy.

This is real food, delicious food, mostly easy-to-make food. You can eat this way without guilt and be happy and healthy. Unless you’re committed to a diet big on junk and red meat, or you don’t like to cook, there is little downside

Except for one critical fact. The subjects assigned to the Mediterranean diet did not have lower consumption of red meat, sugar and hyperprocessed carbs, or other junk! If you look at the supplementary data, you see that the subjects took the positive recommendations of the diet (olive oil, nuts, fish), and more or less ignored the negative recommendations (less meat, less spreadable fats/butter, less baked goods). If you look at figures like supplementary S6, the study groups did not change their diets in these categories relative to the controls, so the effects on their cardiovascular events relative to controls aren’t likely to be from the diet recommendations. When there were changes relative to baseline, even when statistically significant, the changes were tiny.

The participants in this study actually had a very high fat intake, about 35-40% of calories across all groups. And while there was a statistically-significant decrease in cardiovascular events like stroke and heart attack in both study groups (Med + olive oil, Med + nuts), only one arm of the so-called Mediterranean diet (Med + Olive oil) had a non-significant decrease in mortality, while the other arm (Med + Nuts) had a similar curve compared to the “do nothing” control. My interpretation of this, and it’s fine to be critical of it, is that this isn’t that meaningful. If anything, the only variable correlating with decrease in mortality was excess olive oil consumption (> 4 tbsp/day), not the Mediterranean diet. Either that, or eating nuts cancels out the beneficial effects of the diet on mortality.

This is why people always dump on nutrition science when it appears to change every 10 years. Results get overblown, and when the inevitable regression towards the mean occurs, we get blamed for it. The reality is, the press coverage of science is extremely poor, and there is not adequate critical analysis and presentation of results to their audience.

Gun control Part III – Some final questions for Matt and closing remarks

Go by and check out Matt’s second response on gun control.

I think this response is a good argument. After all, my arguments are correlative. It is impossible to do randomized controlled trials on whole countries after all.

I would ask a few questions in response to this rebuttal, however. Matt, what do you think about about data that demonstrates, within our own country, higher gun prevalence correlates with higher homicide, independent of other risk factors? Can we really dismiss the potential impact of federal gun laws using local gun laws as an example? Its pretty clear from places like New York and Chicago, that any local law is undermined by whatever nearest state (or county) has the softest laws.

The issue of whether or not increasing or decreasing gun ownership is also a bit besides the point. After all, that was not the major thrust of my suggestions. Repeatedly, it seems, I am arguing against a straw man that I am advocating gun bans. Matt acknowledges this problem:

This is true, and fair enough as it goes. We gun-rights types are justifiably a bit jumpy about this sort of thing. It would be nice if Mark were the one writing the various laws being proposed in congress and various state legislatures. Unfortunately it’s people like Dianne “Turn ‘em all in” Feinstein and Carolyn “Shoulder thing that goes up” McCarthy and Andrew “Confiscation could be an option” Cuomo. It’s great for the two of us to discuss our Platonic ideals of the way things ought to be, but we also have to remember that we’re dealing with members of the world’s second oldest (and least reputable) profession. Since their stated intent is to take a mile, I’m not very willing to give them any free inches without an airtight case as to effectiveness and respect for the rights of the law-abiding.

I have emphasized in the past, I despise the stupidity and futility of the cosmetic Assault Weapons Ban as advocated by Feinstein for the twin sins of demagoguery and uselessness. But pretend for a moment I am an honest broker in this debate, and I’m not trying to land you on the slippery-slope towards gun confiscation. Do you really believe there is nothing that can be done on the supply-side to decrease either mass violence or, separately, gun homicide in this country? Or that there is nothing that can be done to prevent these guns from falling in the wrong hands in the first place? I believe we can prevent on the supply-side by preventing these guns from getting into the wrong hands, and this can be accomplished without bans.

As a closing statement on this debate, I’d reiterate the laws I advocate do not ban guns. You hear that commenters? During the entire debate, I haven’t suggested a single gun ban, so I don’t need to have this nonsense showing up in the comments. No. I believe there should be two major regulatory efforts: (1) there should me more scrutiny on gun purchasers who want to buy weapons that make mass violence easy, and (2) secondary markets need to be subjected to the same minimal level of scrutiny as the primary markets for all guns (background checks for shotguns, revolvers, bolt-action rifles etc., my higher level of scrutiny and responsibilities for purchasers of semi-automatic weapons).

I’m not talking about any kind of ban, but scrutiny on purchase of magazine-fed semi-automatics. This means people have to do some paperwork, have a check to make sure they’re not a crook (these two already exist), find a couple people to vouch they’re not nuts, demonstrate they can use and store the weapon safely, and they understand simple things like high powered semi-automatic rifles shouldn’t be used with metal-jacketed ammunition in a dense metropolis. Scrutiny, training, safety. These should be relatively noncontroversial measures.

We’ve all done this before after all, or don’t you remember the first time you showed up to the DMV to get a driver’s license? Similar theory, a car is a very dangerous machine, before you start driving you show up, they make sure you haven’t been arrested for joy-riding, you go for a little ride with an instructor to make sure you aren’t completely incompetent at operating the very dangerous machine, and you pass a little test to make sure you know the rules for safe use of the machine. Not a big deal. And how about using technology to make unauthorized use of the machine more difficult? Make it hard for the “dead-eyed killer”, as Matt calls them, to get their hands on the weapon, either from the store, or from someone’s home. Even more ideal, start working on technology to prevent unauthorized use, like the humble car key, that makes it harder for the unauthorized user to jump into your very dangerous machine, and run over a bunch of kids on the playground. Sure they can always hotwire it, but that’s hard, it takes special knowledge, and unauthorized use of the very dangerous machine shouldn’t be easy. It will invariably be argued ad nauseum that such measures can be defeated. Sure! I agree, they can be defeated. Almost any preventative measure can be defeated by a motivated, intelligent and skilled individual, but that doesn’t mean tomorrow banks will stop using vaults, or that we should give up on restricting access to grenades and C4. Barriers are just that, barriers, not perfect preventatives. All human efforts are imperfect, but these barriers may be effective strategies to decrease the likelihood or frequency of such attacks. There’s an expression, low fences keep in big animals.

And what’s so scary about such regulations for an item that kills as many as 30,000 of us a year? For years, we’ve recognized we need to regulate cars, they’re one of the single most dangerous objects in our daily existence. Automobile accidents are the most likely thing to kill you for a good chunk of your life. That’s why we make sure before people can drive, they know how. That’s why we require safety features. For years, the NRA has resisted any equivalent regulation to make gun ownership safer, they’ve resisted any attempt to incorporate safety features into weapons, they’ve resisted any scrutiny before gun purchase, and they’ve resisted scrutiny of secondary gun markets. Why is it so controversial to treat dangerous machines as something that need to be respected? Guns are machines that require training to use, they should have safety features that prevent improper use, they require safe storage when not in use, and there should be barriers and strategies in place to prevent possession by criminals and the mentally ill.

The second major thrust, and I’m not sure Matt really disagrees with me here, addresses the fact guns in the hands of criminals are coming from secondary markets. I discussed extensively in part II guns used in crime are usually fairly new guns. The generally-agreed upon sources are secondary gun markets – straw purchases, trafficking, and stolen guns – only about 10% are used in crime by the original purchaser. If we acknowledge that gun crime is a problem in this country and actually want to do something about it, we have to extend criminal background checks to all transfers of firearms. We have to make secondary markets subject to the same scrutiny as primary markets, and when guns end up in a criminal’s hands, we have to be able to track down the source of the weapon and punish them.

This is how guns get to the street. If we don’t arm law enforcement with the tools to punish gun traffickers and straw purchasers, we’re not going to be able to stop the steady flow of weapons to the streets, and into the hands of criminals. I know, 300 million guns are already out there that couldn’t be tracked by a newly-implemented system, but I’m assuming the overwhelming majority of gun owners are decent citizens who aren’t interested in selling their guns to criminals either, will gladly use the NICS system, and won’t sell their guns to criminals once the existing secondary markets are tightened. Straw purchasers, gun traffickers, and anyone else who sells guns or makes guns available to criminals should be put in jail, and treated like the accessories to crime that they are.

In these debates I’ve suggested these two overarching strategies, one to prevent mass shootings and one to decrease firearm use in crimes. For the first I admit, as does Matt, the data on viable preventative strategies is poor. The events are rare. One of the few examples of a specific response to the problem of mass violence, Australia, is consistent with a benefit to reducing mass violence by restricting magazine-fed semi-automatic weapons, but is questionable in its reduction on gun violence as a whole. I agree with Matt, making these weapons harder to obtain isn’t going to make a huge dent in gun violence as a whole, but I reiterate, increasing scrutiny of purchases of magazine-fed semiautomatics is specifically my suggestion to decrease mass violence. It is possible however, my storage and training portion of that strategy might decrease gun homicide rates modestly by decreasing the frequency of accidents and gun thefts. My second strategy, that of subjecting all gun transfers and purchases to this type of scrutiny, is specifically meant to address gun crime, based on the clear data that guns on the street are (1) usually new guns, and (2) coming from secondary gun markets 90% of the time. If we dry up the flow of guns to the street we are likely to accomplish two goals. We may decrease gun homicides, and we will arm law enforcement with the tools to track down and punish those that supply weapons to criminals.

Neither of these strategies should prevent any law-abiding citizen from obtaining any weapon that is available to them today, at the same time, they obstruct the flow of guns to criminals and erect barriers to those that might commit mass violence.