Thursday, June 16, 2011

NIH's disingenuous response on chimps and bioethics

I'm mostly a supporter of the mainstream scientific institutions, but I'll take a moment here to bash the National Institute of Health and its decision to play politics with research regarding medical experimentation on chimps.

NIH wants to return "semi-retired" chimps to invasive medical experimentation, a proposal that provoked a response by several Senators demanding first a study "about the merits of continued invasive research using using chimpanzees." NIH said, okay fine, and then sent things southward.

The disingenuity is, as told by Nature, the deliberate decision to remove all ethical aspects of the research from the scope of the study. To claim you're creating an objective response to a research request that only considers the category with potential positive aspects and while excluding the category with the most potential negatives, is to be transparent. In a bad way.

What doesn't help is the argument by animal rights types that there's no medical benefit to this type of research. They're trying to avoid an ethical dilemma by claiming there's no reason to do it at all, and shutting their ears to contrary evidence. NIH isn't any better by refusing to think about ethical dilemmas.

Research defenders don't help their cause by deliberately underplaying what they want to do with the chimps. For example, they say regarding testing a Hepatitis C vaccine on chimps that "As inconveniencing tens of chimpanzees impacts the health of millions of humans, it is unethical not to use the chimp model." They don't say how they plan to examine effectiveness, but from my perspective, contracting Hepatitis C after being deliberately exposed, because a vaccine didn't work, is more than an inconvenience.

An even better example of the dilemma is the proposal to use the chimps to research treatments for Ebola. Someone needs to explain to me a humane way of infecting a chimp with Ebola. It remains a dilemma though, unless someone can explain a reason not to explore an avenue for saving human beings from Ebola.

FWIW, I'm not an animal rights type, I'm a sapientist. I'll pick a human over a chimp in some weird hypothetical matchup, but I'd rather cheat the hypo and pay some additional money so I don't have to sacrifice either. Researchers might jeer at that evasion, but their own answer is less clear cut than they think. Medical research on chimps is expensive, but only because we treat them according to modern coddling standards. Drop back to early 20th Century standards of care and willingness to euthanize unneeded specimens, and you could reach your research goals faster or cheaper. Even people who think they have a clear cut answer are actually making compromises.

Anyway, I'm not completely opposed to invasive research that doesn't hurt, scare, or medically harm chimps. Maybe the effect of public review of this issue will be to let us cheat the hypo, and inject some extra government money so we find a way to solve these medical problems without harming chimps more than we already have.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

IPCC reports should make projections based on a maximum human lifetime: 110 years

Supercentenarians - people who live to be 110 or older - are interesting for their own sake and as a reminder of the timescale we should keep in mind for climate change. We aren't just talking about future generations, we're talking about what the world will be like for people who are alive today.

Conveniently, the first IPPC report in 1990 focused on a 110-year time frame ending in 2100. Less conveniently, subsequent reports have each decided to emphasize a shorter time frame than the one before it, because each one also emphasized the 2100 time frame. If the Fifth AR due out in 2013-2014 time frame does the same thing, then people now alive will be in their 80's and still have their remaining lives relegated to a far-off time bin.

Choosing a maximum human life span is a good boundary zone for long term analysis. What that life span would be needs somewhat arbitrary delineation. The link above shows there are hundreds of people now alive who reach 110, so that seems pretty safe as a minimum number for a reasonable, maximum life span even under current, primitive technology, and again it matches what we started with in 1990. It would also have the advantage of reversing the increasing tendency of recent reports to downplay climate impacts by emphasizing shorter time periods.

The Fourth Assessment did look at conditions after 2100, but not in great detail and grouped together with impacts heading out to 2300. The Fifth Report will also look at impacts after 2100, in an as-yet unclear fashion. It should change the categories to say, up to 2125 and then after 2125 (UPDATE: corrected my problems with the advanced mathematics of addition). If not, then at least should provide much more detail as to what could happen in the early 22d Century, because it's appropriate to consider what current generations are going to face.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Double down on Pawlenty's Medicare Option proposal

Tim Pawlenty has proposed, vaguely, to modify Paul Ryan's scrapping/replacement of Medicare by saying he'd keep Medicare as an option people could choose in competition with privatized alternatives:

"I'm going to have my own plan, John, that will feature some differences from Congressman Ryan's plan. It will feature performance pay rather than just volume pay ... it will allow Medicare to continue as an option, but it will be priced against various options," Pawlenty said.

Recall that Ryan's plan for Medicare for future seniors is to replace it with something very similar to what Obamneycare provides to non-seniors. That makes Pawlenty's proposal, if (Big If) applied fairly, Obamneycare plus a vigorous, already-dominant public option.

Democrats should offer a deal. They should say that they don't think privatizing Medicare is a good idea, but Pawlenty's proposal has some safeguards, so they'll agree to it as long as the Republicans agree to let non-seniors also be eligible (or eligible for a stand-alone public equivalent of the Medicare option in case seniors don't want to share Medicare). If the Republicans are confident that private alternatives can outcompete Medicare among seniors, they shouldn't have any worries about making making the options available to nonseniors. Democrats should have the converse perspective, and then we'll see who's right.

Maybe this offer would do no more than expose the Republican lack of confidence in their proposal. OTOH, if they drink their own Kool Aid, it could get interesting.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Weiner and IPCC's Pachauri: both pursued by ankle-biters, both possibly ineffective

(UnAmericans may be unaware of our sexting Congressperson, so here's context.)

Congressman Weiner and the IPCC head Pachauri have both been 1. attacked by people of ill intention 2. for reasons that are only tangentially related to their office, but that doesn't mean that 3. we should root for them to stay in office.

Weiner has displayed astounding stupidity and unethical behavior outside of his political office, but whether that makes him a bad Representative is a different matter. I suppose astounding stupidity could be a disqualifier, but if it hasn't been shown in his work then maybe it doesn't matter. His political ethics should be more important to outsiders than the fact that he's a terrible husband/father-to-be. He burned a lot of friends by lying to them to them and sending them out as media surrogates, but that's not the reason he's being called to resign.

It's a little unfair to group Pachauri with a turdbucket like Weiner, but the conflict of interest charges made against Pachauri and the IPCC by ankle-biters are at least somewhat related to his work and somewhat true. The anklers ignore the fact that Pachauri and all the participating IPCC authors work for free and that Pachauri's home institution paid him 45,000 pounds annually - certainly less than that made by many of the anklers. The IPCC's institutional problem is that it does far too important work to rely on people on top with other jobs. Theyneed to be salaried and cut free from conflicts (or downscale the IPCC, but I think we lose a policy tool that way).

One reason to group Weiner and Pachauri together is on the basis of possibly being ineffective for reasons unrelated to the criticism they've received. Weiner has a reputation of being an ineffective legislator who's used by the Dems to beat up the right in the media (link, June 9 podcast). I disagree that being a lightning rod means he can't do legislating. Ted Kennedy for one thing could do both jobs, and Weiner could've done work behind the scenes and left negotiating to others. If he's not good, then get rid of him.

Pachauri has two jobs at the IPCC: coordinate its internal work, and be its outward face. I know nothing about the former job (probably the more important one), but he's not good at the latter. Lately he's been quiet, which is probably for the best, but someone who can better play the competent scientist role would be an improvement.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Locke on environmental protection and takings

Time for an environmental law tangent.

I've had an idea for years about applying John Locke's theory of property to environmental regulation that could've taken the form of a scholarly article or test case litigation, except that I've not done anything with it. Given a recent blogalanche of posts on Locke and environmental regulation (two posts that I know of), I thought I'd just blog about it. Somebody else is free to do something more substantive with the idea (maybe they have already* and I missed it), or maybe something will motivate me to do more.

So, the issue: regulation of private property by the US Constitution is limited when it goes too far and becomes a taking of private property that must bring compensation to the property owner. The best test of what "too far" means, so far, is the 1978 Penn Central case, where Justice Brennan sez the following factors must be balanced:
  • (1) the economic impact of the regulation on the claimant,
  • (2) the extent to which the regulation has interfered with distinct investment-backed expectations and
  • (3) the character of the governmental action.

(Wiki for intermediate level detail).

Number 2 there has been somewhat problematic to apply. Enter John Locke!

Sec. 27. Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

I see a lot of overlap between investment-backed expectations and the labor theory of property. Mixing your labor to transform the land makes it yours, as does investment that buy the land's transformation done by someone else.

One way to move forward would be to just drop investment-backed expectations and replace it with an analysis of whether the aspect of the land being regulated and protected is something that was created/transformed through human labor versus something that was intrinsic to the land. That, however, isn't going to happen anytime soon, as the law doesn't like to lurch that much. What could happen though is to use the labor theory of property as a means for deciding whether the expectation was reasonable and to determine the moral weight to be placed upon the investment made by the owner.

Environmental protection would generally, but not always, come out ahead under this analysis compared the kludge we have now for takings regulation. Soil and water quality are generally innate to the property and not created by the owner, so protecting them doesn't impinge upon something the owner's labor (or predecessor owner) created. Wetlands were generally there naturally, and similarly could be protected. Important to this is that "failing to harm" the land did not create the environmental values that were there originally. Many landowners who think their years of failing to harm the land gives them the subsequent right to harm it are just mistaken.

But then what if someone decides they want wetlands on their property, create some, and then ten years later change their mind? The labor theory of property would give that owner recourse against environmental regulation that she might not otherwise have. And I think that's okay - on an intuitive level, it makes sense.

Historic preservation has a contrary result where protection would generally, but not always, be lessened under this theory. Imagine a young person erects a distinctive building and then wants to destroy it 60 years later. This theory would give that person or possibly a successor owner a lot more room to claim a historic preservation rule constituted a taking. On the other hand, if a historic event like a battle occurred on the property that was not created by the owner's labor, protection of that historic value could be seen as a public right.

I think this concept could be tested through litigation. Civil rights litigation often preceded by looking at reverse discrimination. For example, gender discrimination in jury selection was thrown out in a case where it was men instead of women that were kept from a jury. I think that would the easiest approach to use to establish for Locke and takings - find a good historic preservation case, or an environmental value on a property that was created through labor and then regulated by government, and defend the landowner. Then we could see the value asserted on behalf of environmental protection more generally.

UPDATE: if anyone wants to collaborate on this, that might be the incentive I need to push it forward.

* A student article by Kraig Odabashian on Locke and investment-backed seems related, but sadly goes to a different concept of a "historic baseline" that I don't like very much. Not sure if anyone else has come closer.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Strange George Mason University interpretations of Virginia FOI requests

In a May 28th Climate Audit post, Steve McIntyre sees some perfect contrast to George Mason University's provision of documents when requested under Virginia's Freedom of Information law, versus University of Virginia's resistance to a demand for records for a witch hunt under criminal prosecution laws by the state's denialist Attorney General. Ron Bailey, who's worked as a 'science' correspondent at 'Reason', doesn't even understand that the threat of criminal prosecution wasn't a FOIA request.

Steve includes this strange response that GMU sent with the FOI records:

The materials in this USB are being provided in compliance with the Virginia FOIA. Many of the documents are published research papers that are copyrighted by their respective publishers. All other documents are copyrighted by Edward J. Wegman and Yasmin H. Said or by their respective authors. All rights are reserved. These documents may not be forwarded to a third party. Also included in this USB is the George Mason University policy document 4007 on academic misconduct. This policy requires confidentiality for all parties including complainants, in this case Professor Raymond Bradley. This confidentiality requirement was violated by Professor Bradley.

The alleged confidentiality requirement and violation seem wrong. Prof Bradley wasn't an employee of GMU acting in the scope of his employment when he complained that GMU Professor Wegman was stealing Bradley's work, so Bradley could tell GMU to go stuff it when it talks about its confidentiality policy. They'd have to prove he signed a confidentiality agreement instead if they feel like whining.

This FOI response isn't itself confidential and in no way binds the recipient to confidentiality.

The copyright claims are a little trickier. Generally documents created by employees shift copyright ownership to the employer, GMU. That can be changed by agreement with the employer, though.

I have seen before the claim that documents subject to third-party copyright can't be released by government agencies. I think it's a weak argument, much weaker than say, climate data-sharing that was contractually limited from disclosure, but GMU isn't actually saying that because it is, in fact, releasing the documents. It's not clear what GMU is saying other than weirdly warning the journalist to only reproduce the documents to the extent allowed underexceptions to copyright. (Climate law seems to be as much about copyright, libel, and free expression as it is about environmental law. My knowledge of those areas is somewhat limited, and every state and country is different).

Meanwhile, some commenters at Climate Audit try mightily to clear up confusion between criminal threats versus FOI requests, and between narrowly targeted FOI request of GMU versus the 9,000 page FOI request that has also been asked of UVa in addition to the criminal witchhunting. Somehow, though, people aren't listening.