Archive | individual action

Riyadh Lafta, scientist, doctor, activist finally got a US visa to speak at the University of Washington

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When the US 2003 invasion of Iraq was underway, University of Washington (UW), Associate Professor of Global Health Amy Hagopian thought it would be a good idea to bring an academic from Iraq to explain what was actually happening to people in Iraq as a result of that invasion. She worked with other academics at UW, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and Johns Hopkins, as well as with community groups who worked with Iraq refugees and the anti-war movement. She spoke with politicians, and wrote letters, and in 2007, it almost seemed as if Lafta would be able to come. He was scheduled to give a talk at UW, but the USA still refused his visa. Canada agreed to give Lafta a visa, and he spoke at Simon Fraser University, with a crowd at UW in Seattle watching the lecture via the internet.

It is likely that one of the main reasons Lafta was denied an USA visa is his 2004  and 2006 Lancet papers  on the mortality of citizens in Iraq as a result of the US invasion. Doing rather dangerous door-to-door surveys, Lafta and colleagues found mortality to be far worse than that reported by the US, which downplayed the effects of war on civilians, and there was a hostile reaction to their papers.

Lafta continued to examine the effects of war on Iraq, and Hagopian continued to work with academic and community members to bring him over. After years of effort, Lafta was awarded a US visa in 2016. On October 27, Lafta gave a talk at the University of Washington.

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There was no pretending in the auditorium that politics was unconnected to science and research: lives are not saved by science or medicine alone. Hagopian and Pramila Jayapal (who is running for Wa State Senator) spoke of politics and war and healthcare, and the possibilities of change. Lafta himself was very clear about the origin of the health problems in Iraq, and about how difficult it would be to improve life for Iraqis. Physicians fear for their lives and most leave the country. With no functioning government, the country is run by militias. He ended his talk with a short film that showed before and after footage of Iraq, once busy streets and markets reduced to rubble. There was a lively question and answer session, and perhaps the sadness and hopelessness of the situation was summed up by Lafta in response to a question about his exceptions of the election on Iraq policy.

He answered simply, “No American President has ever done anything beneficial for Iraq.”

Lafta’s talk has been scheduled for November 3 at Simon Fraser University  in Vancouver, Canada- but as of October 28, his visa application has been refused. He will be speaking at the American Public Health Association meeting in Denver this week.



October 28, 2016

Riyadh Lafta’s talk can be viewed on YouTube.


Is animal experimentation really “cute”?


Today’s Scientist had an entertaining article  on holiday presents for scientists: Brain-slice coasters, silk scarves with red blood cells, bands of one’s own DNA blown up to portrait size, for example.

Another present suggestion was a package of knitting patterns of dissected animals available from a talented knitter at her company aKNITomy , where “biology no longer smells like formaldehyde, but like your favorite sweater.”

Of all the lovely objects available at aKNITomy, why would The Scientist choose animal dissections as the leading illustration for the article? Are dead frogs and dead rats, laid open as by 7th graders in class, cute? Fun? Happy reminders of high school?

A sense of humor is important, and a sense of humor about things that bother us can sometimes mitigate our nervousness….but it can also stop us from really looking at what is happening.

Hard to say what the artist’s motivation for cute and gruesome dissection knitting kits is, but The Scientist might well be trying to do what many scientist do- minimize the pain and cruelty of animal experimentation with humor.

Below is another illustration of this dark humor at the Narishige table in the exhibition hall at the 2015 Experimental Biology convention in Boston. Narishige makes equipment for micromanipulation in physiological research…for cells, yes, and for animals. To illustrate some of their devices for manipulation of live animals, they used little cuddly stuffed animals in place of pictures of real animals. Most scientists walked past the exhibit with little curiosity and no outrage or shame.

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The belief in the righteousness of humans’ right to dominion over the other creatures of the earth lies beneath much scientific training and practice. The devastation of rain forests, elimination of whole species, the poisoning of rivers and streams are actually akin the assumption that animals in labs are here just for us. For some mysterious reason, scientists seem to believe that the nobility of their quest to better human lives excuses causing pain and suffering to animals. For some mysterious reason, scientists seem to believe that the cruelty they cause is not the same as the cruelty caused by pit bull fighting or the abandonment and starvation of pets.

Somehow, many scientists seem to believe that the pain their own little poodles and kitties would feel is a fear more special and in need of prevention than the fear of all those beagles and cats and mice in the lab.

Shouldn’t the first law for scientists, as well as for physicians, be First, do no harm? Don’t cause pain? To anyone or any creature? Can science be a non-violent profession?

Animal experimentation is contrary to what many scientists believe and how they want live their lives, but cruelty to animals has become accepted as a part of science. It is insinuated that folks who do not believe in the use of animals for experiments cannot be serious about science. And so, people make jokes to mask the cognitive dissonance. They are quiet about animal experimentation, ashamed: They don’t tell their children or their dates how many mice they killed that day. They compartmentalize their scientific and family lives.

Rationalization is what scientists are trained to do. But it takes a toll when it is dishonest. Some people, including scientists, are unabashed believers of domination. Of dominance. But many people who are not dominance believers are somehow still convinced that animal experimentation is a given, without alternatives. Others think that animal experimentation should be carefully regulated- except for their own research.

There are groups that advocate for the use of animals in research. There are groups  that advocate against it. Read about it, if you will. But know the reality of what animal experimentation is about, and make sure your scientific side follows the same principles as your human side.

More humanity might even change the face of science and society.


Dealing with the neuroscience of unstable income- or not.

Whether you choose “Apps for Everything but Compassion” (print, 5/7) or “The Shaky Moral Compass of Silicon Valley” (web, 5/2) as your favorite title, the message is clear: the reputation that wealthy tech workers have little empathy for the poor is based in reality.

It may be lack of awareness, or it may be the sense of entitlement and self-interest that studies have shown are associated with access to money. See, it isn’t even their fault that they retreat from the poverty and homelessness of the Silicon Valley….but actually, as a nation, we ignore homeless folks, and it is only the shocking difference between poverty and google etc wealth  that makes the apparent lack of compassion in Silicon Valley so glaring.

Obviously, as stated in the article by Nick Bolton, there are rich techies who do reach out to help, but many are stymied by the lack of technical solutions. (There are economic ones, but no one wants consider higher taxes, or ceilings on wealth.)

But a very interesting Silicon Valley company actually does have a technical solution, an app that addresses income volatility.

Income volatility – income swings, with money coming in irregularly-  makes it very difficult for those living near the edge of survival and/or working at jobs that are seasonal or unpredictable to save money. While a person may make enough money over the year to cover costs, that money comes in a trickle or a flow, and there are often times when bills come due when the money isn’t there…bills such as rent and food purchases. Debt and penalties begins to accrue, hopelessness sets in.

Even, a for-profit company, floats its clients during hard times, and banks their surplus during good times with an app that smooths out the ups and downs of their earnings and enablles them to avoid debt. It is described in “Want a Steady Income? There’s an App for That,” by Anand Garidharadas in the April 29th, 2015 NY Times.

Even was conceived of by 28 year old techie Jon Schlossberg, who was influenced by a `2013 Science paper, “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function,”  a collaboration between behavioral psychologists and economists to examine why those without money seemed to act in ways that would only compound poverty. According to Garidharadas, the Science paper rejected  “the left’s structural theories, the right’s theories about character- in favor of neuroscience,”  and explained that the complicated juggling that the poor must do to survive hampered the ability to focus.

Schlossberg partnered with entrepreneur Quinten Farmer, who brought in the idea of income volatility as a target to address poverty: Farmer recalled his own childhood, in which a divorce left he and his mother financially struggling. For a fee of $3 a week, those with volatile incomes are freed of the impossibility to pay debts with money that is not yet there, and hopefully, and that this can give them the psychological as well as physical space they need to solve problems.

As some reader comments mentioned, there are plenty of fundraisers and good works among techies in Silicon Valley: one reader mentioned Rippleworks, a non-profit that connects entrepreneurs in developing countries with Silicon Valley workers who mentor and give technical advice. It was clear from the comments that many people want to help, and don’t know how. It was also clear that most people don’t consider the deeper economic and social forces behind poverty, or behind their own successes, and that the moral compasses of the commenters were pretty darn shaky. Still, techie activists might be changing the culture.








Researchers’ animal cruelty at U.S. Meat Animal Research Center



The treatment of experimental animal is not a topic many scientists are willing to talk about, other than to say that animal models are necessary for understanding human biology. With this belief and the belief that it is being done for the good of people, a critical look at the practice (and certainly not the morality) of animal experimentation is not systemically done.

Would knowing that animals are being treated extraordinarily cruelly in order to further the needs of the meat industry make a difference in considering the realities of animal experimentation?

“In Quest for More Meat Profits, U.S. Lab lets Animals Suffer,”  an article on page 1 of the January, 20, 2015 New York Times, reporter Michael Moss exposed the abuse of animals at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center.

The U.S. Meat Animal Research Center is a federal institution in Nebraska (associated with the Univeristy of Nebraska) that centralizes animal research in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It began about 50 years ago with the mission of helping producers of beef, pork, and lab turn a higher profit. And in the name of profit, gruesome experiments and horrible deaths are routine, as leaked by U.S. Meat Animal Research Center veterinarian scientist James Keen, who worked with the New York Times for a year for this article.

“Months into his new job at the center in 1989, Dr. Keen said, he got a call from a fellow worker asking him to help with a ‘downed cow.’

“There was a young cow, a teenager, with as many as six bulls,” he recalled. “The bulls were being studied for their sexual libido, and normally  you would do that by putting a single bull in with a cow for 15 minutes. But these bulls had been in there for hours mounting her.”

The cow’s head was locked in a cage-like device to keep her immobile, he said. “Her back legs were broken. Her body was just torn up.”

Dr. Keen wanted to euthanize the animal, but the scientist in charge could not be tracked down for permission. A few hours later, the cow died.”

44 scientists and 73 technicians currently work at the Center. Two dozen employees were interviewed by the New York Times, some of whom had left the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center. Some defended the practices, but others were unhappy with the sloppy conditions in which thousands of animals have starved to death, where pain was not a deterrent to surgeries and experiments, and animals were operated on without anaesthesia. These researchers, as well as technicians and other workers, spoke with the New York Times reporter, giving shocking testimony of callousness.

The Times points out that the meat business is a rough one, where even the successes are brutal: for example, 10 million piglets are crushed by their mothers every year because pigs have been breed for large litters and the mothers are kept alive so long to do nothing but reproduce. But even to other meat producers, the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center stood out for its cruel practices.

The work at the center is not subject to the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, which protects against animal abuse, but excludes farm animals used in research to benefit agriculture. Other farm animal experimenters have sought out oversight, anyway- but not the U.S. Meant Animal Research Center.

(Nor does the Animal Welfare Act protect birds, rats, and mice bred for research, for example.)

This was an unusual article for a mainstream newspaper to print, as the machinery of justice in the USA exerts itself to protect the businesses that profit from animals, and those that expose abuse are subject to legal action. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) of 2006 forbids any action “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” Lauren Gazzola, who exposed animal mistreatment at Huntington Life Sciences, was convicted in 2006 through provisions of the weaker, pre-2006 Act because she and others ran a website that “reported on and endorsed legal and illegal protests that caused the company to lose money.”

In addition, “Ag-Gag” state laws- laws that forbid photography and other exposure of conditions in the agriculture industry are on the books in several states, and are being pushed for passage in other states.

This article is in the New York Times, not Science or Nature or another science journal- yet. Mainstream scientific journals and organizations protect scientists’ “right” to experiment on animals. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Association of American Universities (AAU) …the list is fairly endless. Perhaps scientists, and the scientific press, will one day speak out as the New York Times has done. Instead, they are reactive, with better treatment of animals following the exposures and actions of non-scientist activists and organizations.

When the Center heard that Keen had brought a reporter into a secure area, he was told that he would no longer be allowed in the Center. Presumably, he lost his job, and it is commendable that Keen spent a year helping the NY Times get this story out. But Keen had been there for 24 years, and most of the others who spoke out against the Center had already left. Fear and habit keep us silent.

Speak out when you see cruelty.



Update- Public shaming in the form of this NY Times article worked.

Push to protect farm animals

Science. This weeks session February 13, 2015

The U.S. Congress last week proposed new protections for farm animals used in scientific research. The move comes in response to an exposé published in The New York Times last month, which documented numerous cases of animal suffering and death at a Department of Agriculture facility that has been trying to create larger and more fecund farm animals for several decades. Lawmakers from both parties are backing a bill—called the AWARE Act—that would expand the scope of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs the humane treatment of laboratory animals. Farm animals are currently excluded from the act, unless they’re used in biomedical research or exhibition. The new law would require closer monitoring—and more inspections—of research involving cows, pigs, and other livestock.


March 13, 2015

USDA promises better oversight

New research projects have been halted at a controversial U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) facility, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced 9 March. The agency’s Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, has come under fire for allegedly causing suffering and death while trying to create larger and more fecund farm animals. Last month, Congress proposed new protections for farm animals, backing a bill called the AWARE Act that would expand the Animal Welfare Act (Science, 13 February, p. 696). A draft of a USDA report released 9 March says “no instances of animal abuse, misuse, or mistreatment were observed” at the facility, but that the center had not provided proper oversight of animal care. Vilsack said no new research would be conducted until oversight is improved.

This Week’s Section Science 13 March 2015:
Vol. 347 no. 6227 pp. 1180-1182

But yet, the town where the Meat Laboratory is does not seem to believe there is any cruelty happening in the Laboratory. The local TV station, in response to investigations of the lab, reported an “anti-ag agenda” on the part of the NY Times. Deans and cattlemen spoke up to deny any wrongdoing. Cattleman Dave Nichols had this bit of nonsense to say in response to allegations of animal cruelty: “Too many people are too far removed from producing food. Too many are poorly informed. Too many do not understand the difference between domesticated animals and their wild ancestors from 50,000 years ago. Most domesticated dogs would not last long in the wild, nor would most domesticated livestock. Not many humans would either. This is the world we live in.”

So anything goes.

Yesterday on the supposedly more gentle west coast, USDA inspectors (really) reported cruelty at a research facility in Seattle: Research animals at Seattle’s Children’s denied care. Seattle Children’s spokesperson Alyse Bernal had her own bit of irrelevance in response: “Seattle Children’s Research Institute is committed to upholding the highest standards for animal research.”

If you say it enough times, perhaps cruelty isn’t really cruelty.


Scientists for Global Responsibility- YES!

Scientists for global responsibility

How could one not be thrilled to find (via a message from activist and friend Linda Jansen) to find the UK- based group Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), whose priorities are so relevant to the needs of world citizens, and so on target with the protests going on all over the earth?

Here is a list of project categories from the website:

Corporate Influence on Science and Technology

Military Influence on Science and Technology

Nuclear Weapons Threat

Ethical Careers

Other projects- Population, Climate, Peace, etc.

What’s not to love?

There are currently about 900 members in SGR, and though the organization is UK centered, international members are welcome, according to Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director since 2003. Parkinson earned his bachelors’ degree in physics and engineering, but so many applications were military, with deep ethical implications, and he did his PhD work in climate change modeling. Even here there were ethical problems for Parkinson, as much funding for environmental work was from corporations, and their need to turn a profit was in conflict with preservation of the environment. SGR was a place where he could discuss these ethical issues with other scientists, something that unfortunately doesn’t occur in most scientific workplaces or training grounds.

To demonstrate the various pathways a scientist could choose to imbue life and work with ethical integrity, SGR put out a booklet, “Critical Paths: 12 inspiring cases of ethical careers in science and technology.”  The booklet can be downloaded as a pdf, or purchased as hard copy. Below is the list of scientists in the booklet, which the varied issues they’ve embedded in their life’s work. It would be great to have this booklet distributed in undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate programs, to be used for inspiration and discussion of options.

Critical paths


Introduction …………………………………………………………………………………………….. 3

Elizabeth Martin………………………………………………………………………………………. 4

Discipline: geography
Issues: sustainable development; politics; corporations

Annie Brown……………………………………………………………………………………………. 6

Disciplines: mechanical and civil engineering
Issues: sustainable building; sustainable energy; corporations

Laurence Kenney …………………………………………………………………………………….. 8

Disciplines: mechanical engineering; biology Issues: the military; health

Dave Harper ……………………………………………………………………………………………. 10

Discipline: psychology
Issues: mental health; social justice; the military

Emily Heath …………………………………………………………………………………………….. 12

Disciplines: environmental and geo-sciences
Issues: environmental protection; politics; social justice

Caroline Smith…………………………………………………………………………………………. 14

Disciplines: chemistry; plant biology Issue: sustainable agriculture

Yacob Mulugetta……………………………………………………………………………………… 16

Disciplines: environmental sciences; environmental management Issues: international development; sustainable energy; corporations

Birgit Völlm ……………………………………………………………………………………………… 18

Discipline: medicine
Issues: animal experiments; health

Karl Brazier……………………………………………………………………………………………… 20

Disciplines: mathematics; IT; physics
Issues: the military; sustainable energy; social justice; corporations

Steve Dealler …………………………………………………………………………………………… 22

Discipline: microbiology Issues: food safety; politics

Wendy Maria Phelps………………………………………………………………………………… 24

Discipline: electrical engineering
Issues: the military; sustainable energy; social justice

Sue Mayer……………………………………………………………………………………………….. 26

Disciplines: biological and veterinary sciences Issues: the military; genetics; politics 










Biochemist Lynne Quarmby arrested at Burnaby Trans-Mountain pipeline

Q lab

Scientist and activist Lynne Quarmby mixes her research life (at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia) and her civic life straightforwardly, as shown on her website . A video of her labs’ work with Chlamydomonas is side by side with her Twitter posts (@LynneQuarmby) on the Burnaby protest against a tar sands pipeline. Quarmby, with dozens of other community members, was arrested today in the ongoing protests against the proposed Trans-Mountain pipeline from Calgary through Burnaby.

Kinder Morgan (KM), based in Texas, proposed a doubling of the oil sands pipeline that already runs under Burnaby, and wanted to test the feasibility of building a tunnel under the mountain.  Not only would this immediately disturb the local mountain environment, but the bigger picture- that the extraction of oil from tar sands and the burning of that oil contribute to carbon dioxide production and so, to global warming- was even more controversial. (This connection of government actions with the science of climate change is a message that Quarmby constantly communicated.) The announcement was met by protest by First Nations and other Burnaby citizens and then by a constitutional challenge by the town.

The National Energy Board (NEB) ruled the City of Burnaby couldn’t impede the project, and protests on Burnaby intensified after that October 24th decision.

Quarmby had been working with her community: marching, writing letters, contacting politicians, and protesting in the Burnaby park. She was, with others, arrested on October 25th.

On October 30, KM named 6 residents, including Quarmby, in a 5.6 million dollar lawsuit, saying that they were losing money every day of protest. Quarmby believes she was targeted because she was dangerous from a PR perspective as an outspoken professional willing to stand up and protest, not just about the pipeline, but about the link of the destruction on the mountain to climate change.

“”Maybe it’s because I’m reasonable and level and just speaking about the scientific realities of climate change,” she said . “I am writing and speaking at rallies, and maybe they feel like I’m starting to get people’s attention about this issue. They don’t want people to pay attention to climate change, that’s for sure.”

Quarmby and I were supposed to talk Thursday afternoon, but she asked if we could postpone the talk, as a call had gone out for supporters to come to Burnaby Mountain, where the police were arresting protesters in the park. Best reason to postpone I’ve ever heard!

And this morning, after a short and stirring speech, citizen and scientist Lynne Quarmby walked up the hill to the police line and was arrested again. She did not mince words before she left. She blamed Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the present conservative government of Canada for suspending environmental regulation in 2012. She linked the madness of expanding a pipeline in the face of the surety of climate change. She expressed her horror at the Canadian government for its dismissiveness to the First Peoples of the region, who were not even consulted about the pipeline project. She emphasized that the act of civil disobedience she was about to commit was the act of a citizen whose votes, testimonies, and data were ignored. Her three minute speech is a marvel of clear intention and love of community.

The court costs to face Kinder Morgan in the civil suit court are huge, and though Quarmby is prepared to lose her house, funds are being raised by two crowd-funding groups.  GoFund Me campaign  Legal support for Burnaby Mountain Defenders



Running for office as scientist and socialist


“My name is Jess Spear.

I am a member of Socialist Alternative.

I am a climate scientist.

And I was the organizing director for 15Now.”

So Jess Spear, who is running for the Washington State Legislature, began her debate on October 7 with the mainstream Democratic and  20 year incumbent, Frank Chopp.

15Now was a successful charter amendment for a $15.00 minimum wage in Seattle, a success that is galvanizing similar initiatives all over the country. For, although she is a scientist, environmental and economic justice are her motivations, and science is a tool to address that activism.

Not that Spear doesn’t love science- but from the beginning, she saw the problems science could address. She was first inspired by Carl Sagan as a teenager to want to do something about climate change, way before it became a common concept. Thrilled by a biology class, Spear switched from anthropology to biology, and applied to work on a climate change problems for her senior year project- only to be told by her project advisor that climate change wasn’t a surety. As a student, Spear listened and worked on red tide- but a belief that authority, scientific or political, was necessarily correct did not take, and she found her way back to climate change as soon as possible.

It was not an end to her disappointment with scientists. Not with her mentor: while not as activist as Spear, he was civic-minded and involved and supportive of Spear. But her fellow students, even those working on climate change, were not engaged beyond their own work. Graduate students often have a laser focus only on their areas of study, but Spear thinks, sadly, that it was cynicism about the future that prevented students from working with the bigger picture.

Few senior climate scientists were speaking out, as speaking publicly led to questions about the scientists’ integrity and objectivity. Then, perhaps more than now, scientists in general were schooled to believe that their role is not to be part of policy, but only to provide the data for the policy, seeming to still believe that the research they are doing isn’t already influenced and caused by policy. Michael Mann and Jim Hanson have strongly acted and spoken out, and have written about the need for scientists to speak out, and public involvement is no longer completely damning.

Spear’s personal discontent with the approach to climate change and injustice took a big change in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, public protest in Wisconsin against the budget and restrictions on collective bargaining, and the Occupy Movement. Though Occupy! Seattle, she heard speakers from Socialist Alternative, with whom she then learned the links between climate change and the economic system.

Science and research are integrated into economics, but are generally seen only through the lens of capitalism in US training. Spear recommends that scientists read Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000) by John Bellamy Foster, who has written several books integrating ecology and economics, and who warns readers about the ineffectiveness of spiritual approaches to saving the environment. Frederick Engel’s The Dialectics of Nature, written in 1883  and published in 1939 with a forward by evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, analyzes the revolutions of science and their parallels with revolutions in society, a larger perspective useful for the scientist and activist.

Socialism provides the philosophical and practical links between science and environmental activism, and economics and social policy. For example, while many scientists and organizations agree that we must decrease reliance on fossil fuels to limit climate change, socialists are also concerned with the resulting human needs and in finding job alternatives for those in industries that might be abolished though activism or government regulation. A major mistake of environmentalists, believes Spear, is that they are coming head to head against ordinary working people. Socialism and Marxism have been very helpful to her in framing the issues, in putting problems in a social context, and have made her more more effective on a range of environmental issues.  Spear says, “I now understand how ludicrous it was for me to rail against individuals for their lifestyle choices. People shouldn’t be asked to choose the environment over their families.”

As a member of Socialist Alternative, Spears is not working as an individual, but as the member of a collective. Decisions about policy and actions are made collaboratively. There is a non-hierarchical perspective. This may be difficult for the scientists who believe in themselves purely as individuals to understand. But even with the inspiration of individuals, it is the power of an organization that creates social change.

After 2011, Spear spent more time on political campaigns, working first on the successful Seattle City Council election campaign of Kshama Sawant before leading the also successful 15Now minimum wage campaign. When she and Socialist Alternative decided that it made sense for her to run for Legislative office in 2014, she left behind for now her career as an oceanographer to focus on the election. She marches for political and environmental causes, has been arrested for stopping oil trains going through Seattle, gives interviews and talks, and leads a very different life, for now.

One of the biggest challenges for Spear has been learning a different way of public speaking than she had been trained in as a scientist. There was no effective formula for a political speech. It was usually not possible to use notes or other aids. Instead, Spear had to learn to make herself vulnerable, to listen and respond to the crowd, to improvise. Having let go of the notion of control that is drilled into science, she feels much better when giving a speech.

The election is November 4. Even without the corporate money poured into the campaign of the incumbent, Spear made a good showing in the primary, and well may win this election…if not this one, then the next. People may be shy about socialism, but are understanding that business-as-usual will not solve anything. As a person, scientist, and politician, Spear gives enormous hope that we have the capability to overcome fear and lassitude and make a better world.

The photograph used for the illustration found at the Vote Spear! website.


Scientists spoke but no one listened: the Oso landslide

Scientists predicted the Oso landslide, but nothing was done. Over the years, they spoke out again and again, without effect on development in the area. And then, March 22 happened.


And from the looks of the latest report by the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance Association (you can read about it in yesterday’s New York Times in “Washington Mudslide Report Cites Rain, but doesn’t Give Cause or Assign Blame,” there aren’t a lot of take-home lessons to prevent another catastrophe.  The report did say that heavy rain in the weeks before the landslide were a factor. It suggested that the destabilization of soil from a 2006 slide in the same place and logging.

“But the authors stopped short of naming a specific cause or assigning blame, saying that a slide of such devastating size and force was not predictable.”  How strange, and how useless…..isn’t there an awful lot of room between finding causes and prediction?

Not only in retrospect, the Oso, Washington landslide in the North Cascade foothills that killed 43 people on March 22, 2014 was a catastrophe-in-waiting. While scientists issued reports on the landslide dangers, the town continued to issue building permits and to minimize the chances of a landslide.

The Northern Cascades in Washington State, an area with a history of landslides, high annual rainfall, logging in the area, the fast-moving Stillaquamish River undercutting the hill….all of these factors were indicators of potential instability and were pointed out, documented, analyzed, and reported.

Engineering geologist Robert Thorson from the Univeristy of Connecticut studied in the Oso area, and has outlined some of the history of pessimistic scientists’ reports, local media often responsive to the scientists, and resultant action in denial of the scientific reports.

1932       Aerial photographs showed recent slides.

1949       Landslide destroyed nearly half a mile of the riverbank.

1950’s    Hillside named Slide Hill. Various geological reports predicted more landslides.

1951       Causes of mudflows from 1949 slide shown to be unstable glacial material, undercutting of the hill by the river, heavy rainfall that caused small landslides which then dammed the river and made it more powerful.

1960       By this time, berms, dikes, ditches, revetments, and walls had been built in  attempts to prevent slides. All were destroyed.

1969       Engineering geologists from the University of Washington and the State Department of Natural Resources wrote reports and  memos highlighting “a grave and unstoppable problem.”

1990’s     Investigations continued.

1997        Dan Miller, in a report to the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes, warned of a looming disaster.

1999        Dan and Lynne Miller, in a report to the Army Corp of Engineers, warned to the potential for a large catastrophic failure.

2006        Massive landslide on hillside above Oso. Houses were being built, and building continued to 2013.

Still, as Thorson reported, 2 days after the 2014 Oso slide, John Pennington (the head of the Department of Emergency management for Snohomish County)  told the Seattle Times that “It was considered very safe….this was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”

In August, 2004, the State Department of Nature Resources approved the plan of logging company Grandy Lake Forest to cut adjacent to the plateau above the known slide area. The cut appears to have gone beyond the permitted area. In 2009 and 2011, Grandy Lake were approved to take more logs in the area.

Snohomish County continued to allow houses and trailers to be located on Steelhead Drive after scientists pointed out the unstable hillside just across the Stillaquamish River.

That was the pattern: in spite of warnings by scientists and engineers, local government allowed logging and development to continue in the Oso area.

There were times when government agencies, developers, or loggers heeded scientists’ warnings. In 1988, for example, local company Summit Timber applied to log above the slope over Oso. Paul Kennard, a geologist for the Tulalip Tribes, Noel Wolff, a hydrologist who worked for the state, and Lee Benda, a geologist at the Univeristy of Washington, all spoke out of the danger to the hillside. The Department of Natural Resources stopped the logging. Summit persisted in seeking a permit, but stopped after finally appreciating the risk.

The popular Gold Basin Campground in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, is 15 miles away from Oso and is under a hill (Gold Basin Hill) with geology similar to Oso. As for Oso, there have been documented landslides since the 1940’s and many requests and proposals to move the campground. Environmental engineer Tracy Drury, hired by the Stillaquamish Tribe, warned in 2001 of a catastrophic landslide that could cover the campground: Drury had also warned of the potential for a catastrophic landslide at Oso in 2000.

In the immediate wake of Oso, the U.S. Forest Service still refused to move the campground, a dependable source of revenue. But, by May, soon after concerns of a potential landslide at the Gold Basin Campground had made the national press, the Forest Service announced that it would delay the opening of Gold Basin Campground while they studies the landslide danger. The campground is still not open.

Also in May, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, who leads the Department of Natural Resources, announced  that logging could not take place without a review if the proposed site is even close to a potential landslide area. Formerly, state rules only required the logging companies  to submit their own report to the Department of Natural Resources. Goldmark also encouraged the use of more modern technology to map potential landslide areas.

If the pattern of the past 80 years persists, anxiety about landslides will fade, and rules will again grow lax. What can scientists do to get their information to the public, and to the agencies that can act on the information?

It is hard to take lessons from Oso. Scientists did speak out. The press and media did often respond. As for climate change, and antibiotic resistance, and a host of persistent problems that seem never to get addressed, there are small victories, and steps backwards, and sometimes, catastrophies.

-Use the catastrophies. That is often the only time you get press interested.

-Use the press. Write op-eds. Volunteer for a local radio show. Sign petitions. Be persistent.

-Get your message out to multiple agencies. It is clear that in Oso there are overlapping federal agencies, sometimes oblivious to the other, sometimes competing with each other, and it was all too easy for action to fall between the cracks. Try to find the one person who will listen and step beyond the usual timid boundaries of the job.

– Act locally. It is usually state or town agencies that can act on environmental and safety issues, not national ones. Local business folk might be more inclined to listened to neighbors about issues than a national company would.

-Carry on even when you are shocked by the greed that can make people oblivious to danger, and the tendency of  your own neighbors to believe that their situation will be the exception to your data.

– Not all scientists will be on your side.





Obituary: Arnold Relman and the medical industrial complex


4 Dr. Arnold Relman, 91, died on June 17, 2014.

Perhaps best known as the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine from 1977 to 2000, Arnold Relman was also an editor for the Journal of Clinical Investigation, a researcher on kidney function, a professor at Boston University, The University of Pennsylvania, Oxford, and Harvard. He contributed frequently to the New York Review of Books.

Relman was outspoken early in his position as editor at The New England Journal of Medicine. On October 23, 1980, he wrote an essay in the Journal in which he targeted profit-driven hospitals and other medical  industries. He was very clear that the desire for profit was adversely affecting patient treatment, and that investor-run companies could never have a primary goal other than profit. It was not a popular stance, and he had many critics who dismissed him as a conspiracy theorist or naive medical Don Quixote.

Aalg relman quote

Relman continued urging a reform of the American health care system, and suggested that a single-taxpayer-supported insurance system replace the private insurance companies. He considered the 2010 USA health care law to be only a partial reform, and said so.

The New England Journal  of Medicine, under Relman’s direction, was the first journal that required authors to disclose any financial arrangements that might affect their judgement of their research and publication. Many journals would follow this disclosure of conflicts of interest, and though there are those who still protest that the source of funding is irrelevant and that trying for such integrity was unrealistic, Relman’s stance was crucial in moving the medical and research culture to the expectation of accountability. (In 2002, under editor-in-chief Dr. Jefrey Drazen, The New England Journal of Medicine reversed the rule for authors for financial disclosure as so few authors had no industry financial ties.)

Relman was fortunate in having a work- and later, life-partner who agreed politically and philosophically with him, Dr. Marcia Angell. They worked together at The New England Journal of Medicine, lived together since 1994, and married in 2009. Together they won the George Polk Award for a 2002 article in The New Republic that documented how drug companies invested much more in advertising and lobbying than in research and development. Angell is now investigating the the influence of drug company money on the prescribing habits of physicians.

The New York Times obituary for Dr. Relman  and a New York Times 2012 interview with Relman and his wife, Dr. Marcia Zuger  are the source of the information of this short posting.




Physicist William Davidon and the Media FBI break-in



William Davidon was a pleasant Haverford College professor, a theoretical physicist and mathematician, with a wife and children, a home. He was also a committed civil rights (he had taken part in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, for example) and Vietnam war antiwar activist, often arrested for visible and peaceful antiwar protests.

But under the surface of academia and public protest Davidon lived an extreme activist life, only detailed recently in Betty Medsger’s well- written and absolutely significant book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.” (2014). Davidon was the instigator of the 1971 break-in at the Media, Pennsylvania FBI office, where secret FBI files were stolen and sent to the press (Author Betty Medsger was the first reporter to receive the files) in a pre-Watergate action. The published files were the first step in confirming that J. Edgar Hoover was operating the FBI outside the Constitution with a secret civilian counterintelligence program, “COINTELPRO,” that sought to destabilize anti -war and civil rights groups.

It was a desperate time. In some months, more than 500 American soldiers were killed: by the end, 58,152 American soldiers, 1.1 million Vietnamese soldiers, and 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed. Nixon had just invaded Cambodia, extending the war further. During that time, the FBI was active in discrediting even Congress people who spoke out against the war. Even protesting the war peacefully could result in violence: 4 students were killed and 9 injured by the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State (Ohio) campus in April, 1970.

Medsger detailed the cruelty and pettiness of the FBI in the face of the civil rights movement, as well. The FBI treatment of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shows the harm the harm Hoover’s FBI was causing the nation. Office break-ins, informers, opening mail, wiretapping, and bugging the office and home and hotel room of King were some of the routine actions done over years. The FBI used information found about King’s extramarital affairs to threaten disclosure and suggested King commit suicide before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The FBI knew of threats against King’s life, but deliberately did not inform King of those threats. The details of the FBI’s deliberately induced paranoia and fear was not demonstrated in detail, though, until the Media FBI break-in.

Medsger said it was Davidon’s science-driven love of evidence that spawned the idea of breaking into an FBI office. He wanted proof the agency was spying on protesters, something many had suspected. It was a hunch that the bureaucratically-minded Hoover would document even the FBI’s illegal actions (Finley 2014)

Davidon approached committed activists he had worked with, and whom he thought likely to join him in a break-in  of the local FBI office in Media as an act of resistance. Though all had worked with the Catholic Peace Movement, only one was Catholic, 3 were Protestants, 4 were Jews. They ranged in age from 20 to 44. There were 3 women and 5 men. Several were professors, one was a daycare worker, another a social worker, one a graduate student, one a cab driver. Several had put their careers on hold to deal with what they saw as a political crisis. He was proud of his team. (One member would drop out a few days before the burglary took place, and would later consider turning the other members in.)

Though they all worked with other equally-committed activists, they told no one of their plans. They picked the day- March 8, 1971- because it was the night of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight title match, and many, many Americans (including, they hoped, local policemen) would be tied to their television sets. They talked on the phone as if they were being listened to (and only found out many years later that most phone conversations were being tapped). For several months before the set date, they studied the movement of traffic and people on the surrounding streets, the movement of people in the offices, the local transportation access point, the closing times of stores and bars and restaurants, and more, and only then set the hours for the burglary. They learned to pick locks from library books. One of the members, Bonnie Raines, pretended to be a college student doing research on a local project, and visited the office, taking note of the location of closets, files, and doors, and to see if there was an alarm system.

The night before the burglary, Davidon rented a car (his wife needed the family car that night) and a motel room near the FBI office to use as a staging area. The next day, he and everyone else went to work, as usual.

Then they broke into the Media FBI office.

The break-in didn’t start auspiciously, for there were 2 locks, and one for which the group lock breaker had no tool. He left, and returned, with the burglary already off schedule, but still coordinated with the fight. 4 members went inside and loaded suitcases with files, with a decoy member and the get-away cars outside. The group still didn’t know if they actually had any worthwhile files. They transferred the files to another car, and met at a small Quaker conference center about 40miles northwest of Philadelphia. They read, analyzed, and prepared the files for distribution to the press for the next 10 days. They knew, within an hour, that they had the information they needed. In a newsletter prepared for FBI agents, they read that agents were advised “to enhance the paranoia..and…get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” Medsger p 108

When it was time to notify the press, 2 members of the group read a press release to a reporter from a phone booth on the northwest side of town, near Chestnut Hill. The documents were packaged for mailing, and the day before the last package was prepared, the group met for the last time and agreed that none of them would tell anyone what had happened.

The packages were sent to various politicians and journalists and the firestorm began that caused the Senate to investigate and castigate the FBI, reducing its powers.


-The Media Files

-Carl Stern’s (Stern was a legal affairs reporter for NBC) multi-year investigation and report on the nature of COINTELPRO.

-Assistant Attorney General Henry Peterson’s Department of Justice report on the FBI’s watered down files.

-Watergate revelations about the manipulation of intelligence agencies by the Nixon administration.

-New York Time reporter Seymour Hersh’s story on the CIA’s domestic operations against anti-war protesters.

-Congressional investigation/ Church Committee (and censure) of the FBI and other intelligence groups.


And the group never met together again. For months and years, the robbery was investigated, and several members lived in fear. Several never acted as activists again. Davidon never stopped.

Davidon’s activism started with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as he recognized the potential for total annihilation at the hands of power-hungry leaders. Over the years, his activism increased and he gave public talks with other physicists about the danger of nuclear power.

He did consider silencing his protests after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and moving to New Zealand to focus on research and scholarship- but decided to remain at Haverford College and intensify his activism, not returning to theoretical physics until after the Vietnam War.

“Davidon thinks the silence of his generation after World War II, especially in the 1950’s, diminished an impotent part of the American spirit- the impulse to question and to understand what the government is doing in the name of its citizens. He sees a sad irony in the fact that many of the people who made up what became known a few decades later as the Greatest Generation were largely silent when leading American officials- Senator Joseph McCarthy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover among them- labeled citizens who questioned government policies as un-American in the 1950s and early 1960’s. His generation’s silence, he thinks, created a habit of silence that by 1964 contributed to the fact that most Americans accepted without question the major decision by the administration of President Lyndon Johnson to send troops to Vietnam” Medsger p 439

Davidon continued his activism against the Vietnam war after the Media break in. In March, 1972, he was part of a group that made a local shipment of bombs in York County, Pennysylvania inoperable; this was done not ably to reduce the destruction destruction of Vietnam, but to point out to locals that their local economy depended on the production of weapons. In April, 1972, he and 44 other Philadelphia antiwar activists in aluminum canoes and light rowboats blockaded the munitions ship USS Nitro in Sandy Hook Bay, NJ. Some members were arrested, but Davidon was not, and he was not questioned in the March or May 1972 actions. In May, 1972, he helped to sabotage 3 Air Force jets on Memorial Day at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station by cutting electrical and hydraulic lines and painting BREAD NOT BOMBS on the exterior of one of the planes.

These were dangerous actions that could have resulted in many, many years of prison time. He regretted later that he never really thought through the implications of his actions on his family- yet he also thinks that contemplating the possible impact of one’s actions could lead to refusing to take risk. He believed a life should be useful, and that decreasing opposition to the Vietnam war would encourage Nixon and his advisors to think that people didn’t care- and here, he could be, and was, of great use. Medsger details how much Davidon disliked the idea of breaking and entering, of destroying property, of risking personal confrontation with  guards, with deception- but “he hated the escalation of war more.”

Though an FBI investigation did not find who had committed the break-in (the FBI did interview some of the group, but did not charge anyone) Betty Medsger, after receiving papers from the FBI break-in, continued to investigate the story while she still worked at the Washington Post, and after she left. Unexpectedly, while having dinner with two friends from Philadelphia- Bonnie and John Raines- those friends lightly told her that they had been part of the Media break-in. It was decades past the time when they could be prosecuted, Medsger talked them into telling their story and finding the other members. They found 7 of the 8 members. All agreed to participate and tell their stories, though only 5 agreed to be publicly identified.

Davidon spoke quite openly (and, in fact, had already mentioned his part in the break-in to Patrick Catt in 1997) and agreed to be identified, but did not live to see the publication of Medsger’s book, or the wonderful media attention the book, and the actual break-in, received. He died on November 8, 2013, of Parkinson’s disease.

So, in the face of such heroism, where does one start to be effective? One of the first actions Davidon did as a graduate student was to write (with a group of colleagues) a letter in response to an article in the New York Times by science writer Walter Sullivan about the role of natural uranium. (Catt 1997)

Davidon tried to keep his scientific and activism lives apart, but the two lives were quite entwined. He did feel some pressure from Haverford faculty, one of whom lamented that he would be getting more work done if he weren’t politically active. But he received tenure, with the understanding that a gap in his publications was due to a focus on activist work. In the last class of the year for his physics and math classes, he would devote the period to talk about nuclear weapons and the dangers they presented.

It has not escaped our notice that the activism of Edward Snowdon and Chelsea Manning has been similarly disturbing and effective.

1971 FBI burglary 211x300



The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. Betty Medsger. 2014. Alfred A. Knopf, New York  Website for the book, reviews, etc

Interview of [Dr. William Davidon] by [Patrick Catt on [July 11, 1997],
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,

Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows. Mark Mazzetti, January 7, 2014. The New York Times 

Recalling Haverford professor’s role in 1971 FBI break-in. Ben Finley. January 14, 2014. The Inquirer. 

Burglars who took on FBI abandon shadows. Mark Mazetti  The New York Times, January 7   2014.

What new revalations about the Media, PA FBI break-in teach us about intelligence reform today   Slate  Beverly Gage  January 9, 2014.