Archive for October 26th, 2009

Let's Talk About Breast Cancer

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | October 26, 2009 7:59 pm

Born and raised in Suffern, NY, pretty much everyone I knew was touched somehow by breast cancer. If it didn’t affect you personally, either your friend or aunt or mother or sister or grandmother seemed to be struggling with the disease. There was the routine of chemotherapy, hair loss, mastectomy, and on… it almost seemed as common as dealing with the removal of wisdom teeth. Just take a look at the incidence in Rockland County over 4 years (click here for the expanded list):

Picture 4

Later in Maine, the wife of a professor in my department was diagnosed with the same condition. Many peers had not encountered breast cancer personally until then and I realized my county was unusual. I also learned the couple coincidentally used to live on the street where I grew up.

So what’s going on in Rockland? Some local doctors wonder about environmental toxins and others suggest that the particular genetic make-up of residents may make the population more susceptible than average. Speculation abounds, but there are no answers.

This afternoon I’m concerned about yet another friend having a biopsy. Meanwhile CNN reports on the troubling new trend of younger women getting the disease. The incidence is still quite low, but we ought to be paying close attention. As National Breast Cancer Awareness month draws to a close, the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates there were 192,370 new cases of invasive breast cancer in women and 1,910 in men last year in the United States. Rates in this country are among the highest in the world. (Statistics are available to download here).

I'm Going to Copenhagen!

By Chris Mooney | October 26, 2009 2:34 pm

Copenhagen1Just got my tickets–fortunately, the MIT Knight Program has a travel stipend for fellows, and I am using my allotted research trip to attend the 2009 IPCC COP-15 meeting from December 12-18. (I will also be able to attend the 2010 AAAS conference in San Diego this February, thanks again to the Knight program.)

The IPCC meeting itself runs much longer than December 12-18, of course, but this seemed a sampling of the most relevant chunk of time. I’ll be blogging regularly from over there, as well as perhaps filing a story. Technically, we Knight Fellows are not supposed to write for the duration of our time here, but this may merit an exception….

There have been glum news reports lately, indicating that the Copenhagen meeting may be a let-down. I’m very worried about these reports, and the lack of progress we’ve seen both from Congress and the administration on climate change (see Karen Aline McKinnon’s recent take on this below).

However, bringing people together in Copenhagen, with a deadline, will certainly create a lot of energy and efforts at deal-making–even if the U.S. cannot bring anything as good as a piece of legislation to the table. So, I am not at all convinced–yet–that the Copenhagen meeting will be fruitless.

I do have another concern that I’ve mentioned in the past–one related the timing of this event. Sure, I’m going in December; but I think it’s a very stupid time of year to have such a conference.

Given what we know of global warming and public opinion, as well as about contrarian attack strategies when it comes to climate change, having the successor to Kyoto in the middle of winter in a northern country (see here for data on the weather and climate of Copenhagen) is just asking for trouble and mockery and confusion. Whether or not there is a cold spell or snowstorm, the images of delegates huddling and perhaps freezing will just give immense ammo to the other side, and will likely generate endless sound bites on Fox News.

Oh well…it can’t be helped now. I’m still glad I’m going, whatever the temperature. I’d love any tips about the city, as well as any comments from those who are going–or those with thoughts on how the IPCC meeting is likely to play out….

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My Thanks to "Tom Johnson"

By Chris Mooney | October 26, 2009 12:32 pm

After much controversy and much investigation, it now seems clear that the story originally told by “Tom Johnson” is not credible. Details are here and here. I regret defending it as I did with this post.

Last week, the New Atheist comment machine targeted the following post, in which I republished a preexisting blog comment from a scientist named “Tom Johnson” (a psuedonym). In the comment, Johnson had related  how some of his New Atheist-inspired scientist colleagues had behaved toward religious folks at bridge-building conservation events.

The comment obviously reflected one individual’s experience and point of view, and nothing more. But it struck me as worth highlighting, in light of my many well known concerns about the New Atheist movement.

I’m a bit surprised how much hoopla the simple elevating of a comment into an individual post, with minimal additional commentary, has caused. Clearly, Johnson really touched a nerve. Accordingly, my post unfortunately subjected him to various attacks; fortunately his real identity remains unknown (though I am aware of it).

In light of all this, this post is simply to thank “Johnson” for commenting here, for sharing his story, and for being willing to defend it as vigorously as he has done. It is one person’s perspective, but as I said before, I consider it a striking one. I’m glad we’ve heard it, and I hope Johnson and others like him will continue to comment here on science, religion, and the New Atheism, despite the heat it can sometimes cause.

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Obama's MIT Speech on Energy and Climate: A Critical Take

By Chris Mooney | October 26, 2009 9:07 am

Guest post by Karen Aline McKinnon*

The day after the Pew Research Center came out with the report that “Fewer Americans See Solid Evidence of Global Warming,” President Barack Obama came to MIT to speak about America’s future in clean energy technology. Sitting in Kresge Auditorium before the speech was set to begin, concerned about the direction–-or lack thereof-–of domestic and international environmental policy, I hoped that Obama’s speech would provide daring new direction and a necessary mandate to move away from a fossil-fuel based economy. Rather, the speech was highly and falsely optimistic in these times of uncertainty regarding climate change policy.

Obama stood before energy scientists and environmental activists drawn primarily from research institutions in Cambridge and proudly claimed that those who believe that climate change is not an issue are being marginalized. And so it may seem to those of us ensconced in bastions of science and liberal thinking. But the significance of the timely Pew report cannot be understated: Rather than being marginalized, the percentage of Americans who think global warming is a very serious problem moved from 44% in April 2008 to 35% today; the percentage who believe it is not a problem increased from 11% to 17%. Worse still, only 36% of Americans believe the Earth is warming due to human activity, and a full 33% believe it is not warming at all. Obama would have done well to critically assess the pulse of America on climate change before so optimistically claiming that, for Americans, there is “no question” that we must change our energy system because of climate change.

Speaking at MIT, Obama apparently forgot about the difference between technological solutions and political ones. Drawing on his infinite capacity for hope, he stated that it is simply a “dangerous myth” that our political system is broken and cannot successfully address climate change. With this statement, I hoped that Obama would address the current quandary: As we inch closer to the Copenhagen talks, hopes for a comprehensive international climate agreement have been dashed, more than in part due to the inability for Congress to agree on a climate bill in time. Instead, he spoke straight to his audience and re-emphasized the ability for scientists at institutions like MIT to pioneer new frontiers in technology that can assist in addressing climate change. Technological solutions, however, mean nothing without a political infrastructure to support their implementation, and it is this political system that may be ill equipped to meet the political challenges posed by climate change. Indeed, it may be a more dangerous myth to have blind faith in the ability for our democratic process to address the problem in a timely enough manner.

Obama built his campaign on hope and optimism; both of these qualities are admirable and necessary. But the time may have come for our president to speak frankly to the public about the increasingly severe threats posed by climate change and the very real problem that our political system does not seem able to address many of those threats. Climate change is unlike any other problem faced by Americans before, because it has a timescale imposed by the Earth system that humans cannot adjust at will. It’s high time for Obama to be honest with Americans about these realities, and combine his optimism with a heavy dose of truth. Only a true understanding of the severity of the problem, presented by a popularly-elected leader, will induce Americans to think globally and seriously about climate change.

* Karen Aline McKinnon is a senior at Harvard studying Earth and Planetary Science with a focus on climate.

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