Hanging onto normality 1

Hanging onto normality 1

This week’s events in Paris brought the meaning of the term ‘Global city’ into its full dimension and meaning. Sadly, the city’s boundaries seems to encompass the entire world.

Paris was our home for the past ten years, my daughter is Parisian in her identity more then she is anything else. We are experiencing this pan-european reality with great sadness, and with the deep understanding that terror will be an integral part of our life. We also understand, with the same degree of conviction, that the role we play in this horrific chapter in history, is the part of the ‘normal’ people. The ones who would insist on going to theater, movies, concerts, shopping or simply go out for a coffee. doesn’t sound like much in a soldier’s life, but we will do our bit.

Artzi’s column this week, was immersed in the Parisian tragedy, and here are my images along Artzi’s written words. For me, this is a message of hope.

Hanging onto normality-2

Hanging onto normality-2


Why Climate Skeptics Are Wrong

Why Climate Skeptics Are Wrong

Why Climate Skeptics Are Wrong

Or why climate skeptics are wrong

By Michael Shermer | Nov 17, 2015   The Sciences »Scientific American Volume 313, Issue 6 » Skeptic

At some point in the history of all scientific theories, only a minority of scientists—or even just one—supported them, before evidence accumulated to the point of general acceptance. The Copernican model, germ theory, the vaccination principle, evolutionary theory, plate tectonics and the big bang theory were all once heretical ideas that became consensus science. How did this happen?An answer may be found in what 19th-century philosopher of science William Whewell called a “consilience of inductions.” For a theory to be accepted, Whewell argued, it must be based on more than one induction—or a single generalization drawn from specific facts. It must have multiple inductions that converge on one another, independently but in conjunction. “Accordingly the cases in which inductions from classes of facts altogether different have thus jumped together,” he wrote in his 1840 book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, “belong only to the best established theories which the history of science contains.” Call it a “convergence of evidence.”

Consensus science is a phrase often heard today in conjunction with anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Is there a consensus on AGW? There is. The tens of thousands of scientists who belong to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Medical Association, the American Meteorological Society, the American Physical Society, the Geological Society of America, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and, most notably, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change all concur that AGW is in fact real. Why?

It is not because of the sheer number of scientists. After all, science is not conducted by poll. As Albert Einstein said in response to a 1931 book skeptical of relativity theory entitled 100 Authors against Einstein, “Why 100? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.” The answer is that there is a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry—pollen, tree rings, ice cores, corals, glacial and polar ice-cap melt, sea-level rise, ecological shifts, carbon dioxide increases, the unprecedented rate of temperature increase—that all converge to a singular conclusion. AGW doubters point to the occasional anomaly in a particular data set, as if one incongruity gainsays all the other lines of evidence. But that is not how consilience science works. For AGW skeptics to overturn the consensus, they would need to find flaws with all the lines of supportive evidence and show a consistent convergence of evidence toward a different theory that explains the data. (Creationists have the same problem overturning evolutionary theory.) This they have not done.

A 2013 study published in Environmental Research Letters by Australian researchers John Cook, Dana Nuccitelli and their colleagues examined 11,944 climate paper abstracts published from 1991 to 2011. Of those papers that stated a position on AGW, about 97 percent concluded that climate change is real and caused by humans. What about the remaining 3 percent or so of studies? What if they’re right? In a 2015 paper published in Theoretical and Applied Climatology, Rasmus Benestad of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, Nuccitelli and their colleagues examined the 3 percent and found “a number of methodological flaws and a pattern of common mistakes.” That is, instead of the 3 percent of papers converging to a better explanation than that provided by the 97 percent, they failed to converge to anything.

“There is no cohesive, consistent alternative theory to human-caused global warming,” Nuccitelli concluded in an August 25, 2015, commentary in the Guardian. “Some blame global warming on the sun, others on orbital cycles of other planets, others on ocean cycles, and so on. There is a 97% expert consensus on a cohesive theory that’s overwhelmingly supported by the scientific evidence, but the 2–3% of papers that reject that consensus are all over the map, even contradicting each other. The one thing they seem to have in common is methodological flaws like cherry picking, curve fitting, ignoring inconvenient data, and disregarding known physics.” For example, one skeptical paper attributed climate change to lunar or solar cycles, but to make these models work for the 4,000-year period that the authors considered, they had to throw out 6,000 years’ worth of earlier data.

Such practices are deceptive and fail to further climate science when exposed by skeptical scrutiny, an integral element to the scientific process.

Can We Trust Crime Forensics?

Can We Trust Crime Forensics?

Can We Trust Crime Forensics?

How trustworthy are DNA and other crime scene tests?

The criminal justice system has a problem, and its name is forensics. This was the message I heard at the Forensic Science Research Evaluation Workshop held May 26–27 at the AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. I spoke about pseudoscience but then listened in dismay at how the many fields in the forensic sciences that I assumed were reliable (DNA, fingerprints, and so on) in fact employ unreliable or untested techniques and show inconsistencies between evaluators of evidence.
The conference was organized in response to a 2009 publication by the National Research Council entitled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, which the U.S. Congress commissioned when it became clear that DNA was the only (barely) reliable forensic science. The report concluded that “the forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice, has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community in this country.” Among the areas determined to be flawed and in need of more research are: accuracy and error rates of forensic analyses, sources of potential bias and human error in interpretation by forensic experts, fingerprints, firearms examination, tool marks, bite marks, impressions (tires, footwear), bloodstain-pattern analysis, handwriting, hair, coatings (for example, paint), chemicals (including drugs), materials (including fibers), fluids, serology, and fire and explosive analysis.Take fire analysis. According to John J. Lentini, author of the definitive bookScientific Protocols for Fire Investigation (CRC Press, second edition, 2012), the field is filled with junk science. “What does that pattern of burn marks over there mean?” he recalled asking a young investigator who joined him on one of his more than 2,000 fire investigations. “Absolutely nothing” was the correct answer. Most of the time fire investigators find nonexistent patterns, Lentini elaborated, or they think a certain mark means the fire burned “fast” or “slow,” allegedly indicated by the “alligatoring” of wood: small, flat blisters mean the fire burned slow; large, shiny blisters mean it burned fast. Nonsense, he said. It may take a while for a fire to get going, but once a couch or bed burns and reaches a certain temperature, you are not going to be able to discern much about its cause.Lentini debunked the myth of window “crazing” in which cracks indicate rapid heating supposedly caused by an accelerant (arson). In fact, the cracks are caused by rapid cooling, as when firefighters spray water on a burning building with windows. He also noted that burn marks on the floor are not the result of a liquid deliberately poured on it. When a fire consumes an entire room, the extreme heat burns even the floor, along with melting metal and leaving burn marks under a doorway threshold, which many investigators assume implies the use of an accelerant. “Most of the ‘science’ of fire and explosive analysis has been conducted by insurance companies looking to find evidence of arson so they don’t have to pay off their policies,” Lentini explained to me when I asked how his field became so fraught with pseudoscience.

No one knows how many innocent people have been convicted based on junk forensic science, but the National Research Council report recommends substantial funding increases to enable labs to conduct experiments to improve the validity and reliability of the many forensic subfields. Along with a National Commission on Forensic Science, which was established in 2013, it’s a start.


This article was originally published with the title “Forensic Pseudoscience.”

Future Right Summit

RRepublicans and Libertarians

Republicans and Libertarians

An unconventional summit on the future of the Right.


July 17, 2015, National Journal

On a Fri­day in late June in the Texas Hill Coun­try, about an hour out­side Aus­tin, some 30 shoe­less, mostly liber­tari­an, mostly mod­er­ate, mostly Re­pub­lic­an guests gathered at the 720-acre, East­ern-in­spired ranch of Whole Foods cofounder and co-CEO John Mackey, for a con­fer­ence on the fu­ture of the GOP. It was 9:30 a.m., and an­oth­er of their hosts, Rich Tafel, founder of the gay con­ser­vat­ive group Log Cab­in Re­pub­lic­ans, had just giv­en the in­tro­duc­tion to the first full day of the event, which would run un­til Sunday mid­day. Dur­ing a break, at­tendees checked their phones and en­countered some ver­sion of this head­line: “5-4 Rul­ing Makes Same-Sex Mar­riage a Right Na­tion­wide.” “Here we were in this group, try­ing to ima­gine the fu­ture Right,” busi­ness­man Ted Buer­ger tells me later, “and a door­way opened in the middle of those meet­ings and said, ‘What you are try­ing to cre­ate is what is go­ing to be cre­ated.’ “

The con­fer­ence, of­fi­cially called the Con­clave on the Fu­ture of the Right, was sponsored by the In­sti­tute for Cul­tur­al Evol­u­tion, which, since 2013, has been fo­cused on “de­pol­ar­iz­ing” Amer­ic­an polit­ics. Mackey and Tafel, both seni­or fel­lows there, is­sued in­vit­a­tions to Re­pub­lic­an and Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing in­de­pend­ent “thought lead­ers”—in­clud­ing former Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee head Mi­chael Steele, Rep. Car­los Cur­belo of Flor­ida , and book pub­lish­er and Charles Koch scion Eliza­beth Koch—who they be­lieved would be re­cept­ive to their vis­ion of a GOP that fo­cuses less on di­vis­ive so­cial is­sues. After dec­ades of sub­or­din­a­tion to a Re­pub­lic­an “base” com­posed of so­cial con­ser­vat­ives, it seems, liber­tari­ans and oth­ers who have felt ali­en­ated from the party see an op­por­tun­ity to seize the reins. The aim of this meet­ing was to en­gage some of them in a con­ver­sa­tion about what their dream party might look like.

Rather than an at­tempt to talk strategy or tac­tics (“This is not about Re­pub­lic­ans learn­ing to speak Span­ish,” Tafel joked), the con­fer­ence was meant to be a sum­mit of ideas, a first step to­ward achiev­ing a con­sensus of the like-minded. The week­end was broken down in­to 11 ses­sions, each with a broad theme such as “So­cial/Value Is­sues,” or “The Role of the Me­dia in the Fu­ture of the Right.” (For those in­ter­ested, the agenda also in­cluded hik­ing and a dip in a swim­ming hole on the grounds.) Brief “con­ver­sa­tion starters” led to fa­cil­it­ated dis­cus­sions of 30 minutes to two hours, in a set­ting that it­self was a stretch for some of those present. “It was rus­tic—more Wild West or rugged West,” but with “pic­tures of yo­gis and East­ern mys­tics,” says Nick Gillespie, ed­it­or of liber­tari­an touch­stone Reas­ The group dined on ve­gan dishes that in­cluded a “chocol­ate pud­ding” made of avo­cado and dates, which, for those who didn’t nor­mally ad­here to the diet “kind of en­cap­su­lated part of what we were try­ing to do, which was to try and do things, or see things, dif­fer­ently,” Gillespie says.

To be sure, even among a group preselec­ted for its open-minded­ness and shared val­ues, ten­sions arose. At the start of one ses­sion, Dav­id Blanken­horn, the founder and pres­id­ent of the In­sti­tute for Amer­ic­an Val­ues, made the case for mar­riage and the two-par­ent fam­ily struc­ture—wheth­er the couple is straight, gay, or oth­er­wise. Some of the more em­phat­ic liber­tari­ans erup­ted at the mere in­tro­duc­tion of the top­ic. (At one point after the gay-mar­riage de­cision came down, some par­ti­cipants began to de­bate why mar­riage laws were needed at all, but that con­ver­sa­tion was quickly quashed.) “There are people who are very much in fa­vor of life­style ex­per­i­ment­a­tion” and who wouldn’t want a party that simply “up­held tra­di­tion­al val­ues,” says Mi­chael Strong, a liber­tari­an and cofounder of the non­profit Rad­ic­al So­cial En­tre­pren­eurs.

The ten­sion between or­der and liberty—and the ques­tion of how to main­tain the un­easy al­li­ance between so­cial con­ser­vat­ives and liber­tari­ans—is hardly new. But the ten­or of the con­ver­sa­tions sug­ges­ted that the at­tendees saw a fu­ture in which they and their val­ues formed the GOP’s base, and so­cial is­sues and their cham­pi­ons were no longer cen­ter stage. Their re­thought, re­newed party would be in­clus­ive and pro­act­ive, and would stand for per­son­al free­dom, smal­ler gov­ern­ment, and en­tre­pren­eur­i­al cap­it­al­ism.

That wouldn’t mean abandon­ing so­cial con­ser­vat­ives, strategist Patrick Ruffini and oth­ers are quick to note. “I came at this through the polit­ic­al arena,” Ruffini says. “I don’t be­lieve that mar­gin­al­iz­ing so­cial con­ser­vat­ives with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party is ne­ces­sar­ily a good strategy for mov­ing for­ward. There still does need to be a co­ali­tion between all sides, and there needs to be mu­tu­al un­der­stand­ing and re­spect.” The ques­tion, says Tafel, is “how can we bring people for­ward with their val­ues? Be­cause a lot of those val­ues are quite beau­ti­ful. Their faith, their fam­ily. They don’t need to aban­don them,” he says. But “that fear-based stuff that has of­ten been stuck with the tra­di­tion­al cul­ture”—that has to go. Or, as Ab­n­er Ma­son, the CEO of Con­se­joSano, an on­line health care com­pany for Span­ish speak­ers, put it, “We’ve got to leave the hate be­hind.”

So how to form an al­li­ance with those they hope to sup­plant? One sug­ges­ted out­reach strategy was to step for­ward to de­fend so­cial con­ser­vat­ives against the kind of cul­tur­al back­lash many at­tendees pre­dicted was nigh. “Now that so­cial lib­er­als have won on gay mar­riage, there’s the pos­sib­il­ity that they’ll want to really force re­li­gious com­munit­ies to ad­here to a whole range of so­cially lib­er­al po­s­i­tions,” for in­stance by at­tempt­ing to re­voke tax-ex­empt status for churches, says Strong. However, it is hard to know how far such a ges­ture would go with con­ser­vat­ives, Blanken­horn notes wryly, be­cause there were none at the con­fer­ence. “It’s not good to en­gage with someone in ab­sen­tia,” he says. “Es­pe­cially if you’re go­ing to try and ex­ecute them.”

On Sunday, every­one had a chance to of­fer one or two words sum­ming up his or her ex­per­i­ence; com­mon choices, ac­cord­ing to the 12 par­ti­cipants I in­ter­viewed, were “re­freshed,” “re­newed,” and “op­tim­ist­ic.” Tafel says he will write a sum­mary of the con­ver­sa­tions, which he’ll send to par­ti­cipants to edit. If enough people are com­fort­able with the idea, he’ll pub­lish it as a signed mani­festo. The re­cep­tion that doc­u­ment gets could dic­tate what hap­pens next. But he’s con­fid­ent that they’re on the right track, and that something will hap­pen. Just like the idea of gay mar­riage 20 years ago, the concept of the fu­ture Right “sounds so far-fetched,” Tafel says. “But I have no doubt that what we’re do­ing is go­ing to ac­tu­ally trans­form it. You have to have ideas first. And you have to stand alone first for a while.”

Mind the fair trade gap

Mind the fair trade gap

Mind the fair trade gap

Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

‘If fair trade does deliver higher incomes for farmers, it may prove too successful for its own good’

In 2001, the world price of coffee sank to its lowest ebb for decades, threatening dreadful hardship for the often-poor farmers who grow the sainted berry. It was also around that time that fair trade coffee seemed to come of age, with a common certification mark launched in 2002, and the product becoming a familiar sight in supermarkets and coffee chains.

The premise of fair trade is that the disparity between poor coffee farmers and prosperous drinkers presents both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that farmers often live a precarious existence: geographically isolated and growing a crop with a volatile price. The opportunity is that many western consumers care about the earnings and conditions of the people who grow their coffee, and have some money to spare if only it might reach those people.

Unlike a taxi driver or a waiter, you can’t just tip the guy who grew your coffee. The fair trade answer to the conundrum is a labelling scheme: an inspector verifies that all is well on the farm, with good conditions and a higher price paid for coffee; this information is conveyed to consumers by way of a recognisable trademark, the most famous of which is the Fairtrade logo. It’s an appealing idea — a voluntary scheme that helps people who want to help people. (Or rather, several voluntary schemes: there is more than one fair trade label, alongside diverse certification schemes such as Organic or Rainforest Alliance.) Who wouldn’t want a better deal for farmers who are poor and work hard? But there are problems with the idea too.

The most obvious problem is that this labelling scheme costs money. Flocert, a certification body set up by the Fairtrade Labelling Organization, charges farmer co-operatives €538 merely to apply for certification, plus an initial audit fee of €1,466 even for a small co-op. Cynics might suspect bureaucratic bloat but the costs may well be real. It cannot be cheap to check pay and conditions in some remote Peruvian coffee plantation. But every euro spent on certification is a euro that the farmer cannot spend on his family. And larger co-operatives from richer, better-connected countries are more likely to find it worthwhile to pay for certification. For this reason, economist and fair trade critic Ndongo Sylla says that fair trade benefits “the rich”. That seems too strong; but it is certainly a challenge for the fair trade model to reach the poorest.

A second problem is that fair trade certification cannot guarantee fair trade sales. If coffee importers want to put the Fairtrade mark on their coffee, they must find a Fairtrade certified producer and pay the Fairtrade price, which reflects both a modest premium and a guaranteed minimum price. But importers are not obliged to buy fair trade coffee and may avoid it when it gets too expensive, exactly when the premium is most needed. A study by Christopher Bacon found that during the price slump of 2000 and 2001, Nicaraguan coffee farmers were earning twice as much per pound when selling fair trade coffee as when selling the uncertified stuff. But much of their coffee could not find a buyer at such rates and was sold at market rates instead; as a result, the average price premium, while substantial, was much lower at around a third.

Another study, by Tina Beuchelt and Manfred Zeller, found the fair trade certified farmers in Nicaragua started at a similar income level to conventional farmers and, if anything, slipped backwards. A recent survey by Raluca Dragusanu, Nathan Nunn, and Daniele Giovannucci was more upbeat but still found the evidence in favour of fair trade “mixed and incomplete”.

A final irony is that if fair trade does deliver higher incomes for farmers, it may prove too successful for its own good. If coffee farmers are able to sell more coffee at a premium price, more people will want to become coffee farmers. One possible result is that the market price for uncertified coffee falls and, on balance, coffee farmers are no better off.

As the development economist Paul Collier once wrote, fair trade certified farmers “get charity as long as they stay producing the crops that have locked them into poverty”. It is a telling point. For all the good I may wish the people who make my coffee, a globalised tip jar makes a precarious foundation for their future prosperity.

Written for and first published at