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A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...

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Monday January 09, 2006

[It’s probably dumb to try and put a humorous spin on the abortion issue and the Alito hearings, but here goes anyway.] -- Eugene Linden

Pro-Life group says fire NASA chief

By Lamatty Hurstwhistle
Sentinel and Post Staff Writer
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – At a hastily organized press conference, Dr. James Dobson, founder and president of the American Family Network, called for the firing of NASA administrator Digby Johnson because of the agency’s “consistent pattern of insinuating an anti-life agenda into its space missions.” Dobson said that his call was prompted when the space agency aborted the take off of the Space Shuttle Enterprise after the discovery of a leak in the vessel’s external fuel tank. “We watched for years while NASA deviously promoted a pro-abortion agenda,” said Dobson, “and it’s time we had an administrator who didn’t try to pollute outer space with his political views.” Dobson went on to say that thanks to NASA’s action, “we will never know what that mission might have accomplished.” When initially reached for comment, Johnson heatedly denied that the cancellation of last week’s mission had anything to do with a pro-abortion agenda. “We’re simply trying to protect the lives of astronauts and any suggestion otherwise is sheer lunacy.” Later, however, after consultations with White House officials, Johnson softened his remarks. “Every launch is precious,” said the somber former astronaut, and he vowed to pursue a full investigation into the circumstances that led to the cancellation of last week’s take off. The Republican leadership was quick to take up the issue. Breaking away from exercise hour to take a reporter’s questions at Eglin Federal Prison Camp in Florida, Rep. Tom Delay thundered into the receiver on his side of the glass partition in the visitor’s room: “Abortion in any form is an abomination!” Democratic response was muted at first, possibly because the leadership’s pollsters were attending a conference in Las Vegas. Senator Ted Kennedy’s office put out a statement which read in part, “It’s my firm belief that the captain of a space shuttle should have the right to make the choice to terminate a mission if he believes that a full-term countdown might threaten the safety of the crew.” “Typical,” sneered a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity, “If Democrats had been in charge of expeditions in Queen Isabella’s day, Columbus would have turned back before he passed the Azores.” As the day wore on, speculation grew as to who might replace Johnson as NASA administrator should his public show of contrition fail to appease the White House. Among the names most frequently mentioned have been Phyllis Schlafly and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. “They have gold-plated, pro-life credentials,” gushed one Hill staffer, “and both have strong opinions on scientific matters.” Many observers viewed the new campaign as evidence of a new emboldened pro-life movement on the heels of the confirmation of Samuel Alito Jr. to the United States Supreme Court. Some bloggers, however, took a more cynical view. In a posting in the prominent liberal blog Talking Points Memo, Joshua Marshall suggested that Dobson might have chosen to push the issue to distract the media from newly surfaced emails in which the Christian right leader volunteered to be the mohel at a lavish bris organized by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Although still in its infancy, the campaign is already having reverberations beyond NASA. The Air Transport Association, the principal airline industry lobbying group, issued a statement promising a review on its policy on take offs and landings. A spokesman for the group noted, “Right now, everything’s up for grabs, but I promise that we’re going to look at this from the standpoint of whether it is justifiable to abort any take-offs at all.”

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Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.



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