Happy Hour Discurso

Today’s opining on the public discourse.

Obama announced his pick for the Supreme Court today. And the Cons sprang into action, giving us a superb view of their racism, sexism, and various and sundry other isms.

Inhofe was perhaps the most obvious of the lot:

A whole lot of senators issued statements today in response to Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination, and most were polite and inconsequential. Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) press release, however, stood out.


“Without doubt, Judge Sotomayor’s personal life story is truly inspiring. I congratulate her on being nominated. As the U.S. Senate begins the confirmation process, I look forward to looking closer at her recent rulings and her judicial philosophy.
“Of primary concern to me is whether or not Judge Sotomayor follows the proper role of judges and refrains from legislating from the bench. Some of her recent comments on this matter have given me cause for great concern. In the months ahead, it will be important for those of us in the U.S. Senate to weigh her qualifications and character as well as her ability to rule fairly without undue influence from her own personal race, gender, or political preferences.” [emphasis added]

[snip]

Put it this way: when was the last time James Inhofe questioned whether a white nominee for the federal bench had an ability to rule “without undue influence” from his race? Would he worry about the Vatican having “undue influence” over a Roman Catholic nominee? Has he ever checked to make sure a male nominee was not overly influenced by his gender?

I somehow doubt it.

Of course, the whole chorus line of right-wing blowhards is belting out the tune:

Leading conservative commentators and news outlets have jumped on the 2001 Sonia Sotomayor quote I noted below to make the (wrong) claim that she has said that Latinas are better than white men.

In that 2001 speech, Sotomayor didn’t say that. Rather, she said this:

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [as a judge] than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Rush Limbaugh, in an apparent reaction to the quote, said that Sotomayor is a “reverse racist” who “has put down white men in favor of Latina women.” Fox News’ Megyn Kelly said it shows Sotomayor thinks “that Latina judges are obviously better than white male judges.”

Michelle Malkin, meanwhile, said it shows that Sotomayor wants her personal experiences to “cloud her jurisprudence.”

The full text of her 2001 speech is right here. It shows that these readings are complete fabrications.

Yes, I know. Super totally unbelievable they’d take something utterly out of context and use it to paint Sotomayor as some sort of uber-liberal activist judge who just wants to bust white men’s balls, right?

But they’re not stopping there. Oh, no. They’re slamming her intellect:

Attacking Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for being insufficiently right-wing makes perfect sense. Attacking her intelligence is not only ridiculous, it’s offensive.

Sotomayor, a lower-court nominee of both the H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, has a background that should shield her from such nonsense: top of her class at Princeton, Yale Law School (editor of the Yale Law Journal), successful big-city prosecutor, corporate litigator, trial judge, district court judge, appeals court judge. She’s earned the respect and admiration of her clerks, colleagues, and the lawyers who’ve argued before her. Sotomayor’s intellect is not in doubt.
And yet, it’s the issue some of the far-right’s leading activists have decided to hang their hat on.


This morning on Fox News, Karl Rove questioned whether she was smart enough to be on the Supreme Court. “I’m not really certain how intellectually strong she would be, she has not been very strong on the second circuit,” he said. Citing Rosen, Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes said that Sotomayor was “not the smartest.”

This is, alas, not new. Two of the guys on the National Review’s crew said Sotomayor is “dumb.” In a now-infamous piece, Jeffrey Rosen quoted unnamed sources arguing that the judge is “not that smart.” This morning, Curt Levey, executive director of the right-wing Committee for Justice, said Harriet Miers was an “intellectual lightweight” — and Sotomayor is like Miers.

Because, you know, brown people can’t be smart. Even if they’re brilliant:

Coming from a housing project in the Bronx, Sotomayor ended up graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton. She also was a co-recipient of the M. Taylor Pyne Prize, the highest honor Princeton awards to an undergraduate. Sotomayor then went to Yale Law School, where she served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal and managing editor of the Yale Studies in World Public Order. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) said on Fox News this morning that of all the nominees, Sotomayor “brings the most in terms of judicial experience — in terms of serving on a federal court — in 100 years.”

SCOTUS Blog has pointed out that women and minority candidates for the Supreme Court are often portrayed as not being smart enough for t
he job
. As Matt Yglesias has also written, underscoring this point, “I recall a lot of issues being raised during the Samuel Alito confirmation fight, but at that time I don’t remember anyone raising questions about the intelligence of a Princeton/Yale Law graduate who’d done time on an Appeals Court.”

Their bias may or may not be unconscious, but it extends even into refusing to pay her the simple courtesy of calling her judge:

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has some thoughts on Sotomayor, too. “Of primary importance,” he says, “we must determine if Ms. Sotomayor understands that the proper role of a judge is to act as a neutral umpire of the law, calling balls and strikes fairly without regard to one’s own personal preferences or political views.” [emphasis added]

[snip]

Just as a point of reference, when Roberts and Alito were under consideration in the Senate, Sessions took care to refer to both men as judges in his press releases.


I do believe they need to be taking the advice of some rather high-ranking Republicans and knocking the sexist, racist bullshit off before it explodes in their faces. It’s not likely to sit well with the broader public. Happily for those of us who enjoy watching GOP train wrecks, wiser heads aren’t likely to prevail.

The idiocy continues with Rush Limbaugh, who added Sotomayor to his list of people he most wants to see fail:

Reacting to Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court today, conservative talker Rush Limbaugh called Sotomayor a “horrible pick,” said that Republicans should “go to the mat” in their efforts to oppose her confirmation in the Senate, and — echoing his hopes for Obama’s failure — declared that he wanted Sotomayor to “fail”:
LIMBAUGH: Do I want her to fail? Yeah. Do I want her to fail to get on the court? Yes! She’d be a disaster on the court.

He then reiterated his hopes for Obama’s failure. Same ol’ fatuous gasbag.

But I think the most amusing thing to come out of this nomination is Norm Coleman’s idea that he’s still relevant in any way:

Former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) has released a statement on the Sotomayor nomination, promising to make a thorough review of her record — as soon as he’s re-elected:

ST. PAUL – Senator Norm Coleman today released the following statement in response to President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court.

“When debating judges, I was firm that I would use the same standard to evaluate judges under a Democrat President as I would a Republican President. Are they intellectually competent, do they have a record of integrity, and most importantly, are they committed to following the Constitution rather than creating new law and policy. When I am re-elected, I intend to review Judge Sotomayor’s record using this process. Certainly, the nomination of a Hispanic woman to the nation’s highest court is something all American’s should applaud.”

Isn’t that adorable? He sounds just like he doesn’t realize the election already happened and he lost.

Interesting fantasy world the Cons inhabit. It’ll be adorable to watch them suffer apoplexy when Judge Sotomayor’s confirmed.

Memorial Day Roundup


A lot of bloggers had good Memorial Day posts up today. Just in case you missed them, here they are.

Think Progress has stats showing that America’s failing her vets.

Susie Madrak at Crooks and Liars reminds us: For Every Death, A Hole in the World

DarkSyde at Daily Kos takes us Beyond Memorial Day, and reminds us that there are all too many veterans we’re forgetting.

And Digby celebrates the moral Heroes, who deserve just as much praise as the physical variety.

We may not always support the war these men and women are sent to fight. But we will always support them.

Seriously? This is The Case Against Gay Marriage?

Isaac Chotiner at TNR‘s The Plank tears apart an article arguing against gay marriage that is so egregiously stupid, so delusional, and so incoherent that one would be tempted to believe we’ve been Poe’d. Alas, that is not the case. Sam Schulman appears to believe his own schlock.

A sampling:


As part of the “kinship system,” marriage has, according to Schulman, four effects. The first is too poorly presented to be summarized coherently or cogently. The second has to do with, yes, incest:

Incest prohibition and other kinship rules that dictate one’s few permissible and many impermissible sweethearts are part of traditional marriage. Gay marriage is blissfully free of these constraints. There is no particular reason to ban sexual intercourse between brothers, a father and a son of consenting age, or mother and daughter…A same-sex marriage fails utterly to create forbidden relationships.

[snip]

Uh huh. Schulman goes on to fret about children losing their “status as nonsexual beings” once all the gays are allowed to marry. He also informs the reader that he has been married three times.

Shortly thereafter, Isaac unloads with both barrels. This is all to the good. It gives me time to look up a good therapist for poor Schulman. He desperately needs one.

(Tip o’ the shot glass to Steve Benen. Sorry it’s empty, Steve – I spilled it when I read the article.)

Look! Up in the Sky! Is That a Pale Horse?

Because I swear to fuck it’s Armageddon. I mean, we’ve got Helene Cooper blathering senselessly in the New York Times, comparing Obama to Bush, trying to claim Obama’s knocking down straw men, and offering this as her proof:

“There are those who say these plans are too ambitious, that we should be trying to do less, not more,” Mr. Obama told a town-hall-style meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., on March 18. “Well, I say our challenges are too large to ignore.”

Mr. Obama did not specify who, exactly, was saying America should ignore its challenges.

I mean, really? This is an example of the commanding political intellect and keen powers of observation at work at the NYT? Every right wing knock on Obama for the first hundred days always insinuated “he’s doing too much.” I find 37,000 examples in one quick search. (Publius has a fine collection, too.)

But that’s not what’s got us in pale horse territory. This does:

And it’s not like this was some selective observation of the left. Here’s Rammesh Ponurru at The Corner:

I suspect that I will not have many opportunities to defend President Obama from New York Times reporters, so I will seize this one. The related notions that Obama has too much on his plate, that he is overloading the political system, and that he is spending too little time on the economy and too much on health and the environment are staples of centrist and center-right commentary about the president, and have been for months.

Um….


When someone at the fucking Corner is defending Obama, you know a hole’s just been ripped in the space-time continuum. I hope Helene’s happy. Her lazy, ignorant, flat-out wrong reporting might very well have just brought on the Apocalypse.

Happy Hour Discurso

Today’s opining on the public discourse.

Well, my darlings, ’tis the last day of ye olde holiday weekend. I hope you’re coming back rested, refreshed, and ready for the onslaught of the burning stupid.

That said, it’s time to introduce you to the new savior of the Republican party:

Let’s see, Liz Cheney practically lives on cable news. She also lies routinely, accuses the president of helping terrorists, and is so mindless in her attacks on the nation’s elected leadership, she’s something of a national embarrassment.

And for Republican recruiters, apparently she’s perfect.

The hottest Republican property out there isn’t former Vice President Dick Cheney but his daughter Liz, who has taken to the airwaves to defend her dad and the whole Bush administration on national security and Guantánamo Bay issues. Liz Cheney, who followed the former veep’s hard-hitting speech criticizing President Obama’s policies with a CNN appearance, is becoming so popular in conservative circles that some want her to run for office. “She’s awesome. Everyone wants her to run,” said a close friend.

[snip]

A forceful defender of the administration and her dad, Liz Cheney has been appearing on TV with greater regularity. She brings to the screen a combination of her dad’s steely focus and her mom’s softer touch. “It’s a two-fer. She comes off a bit better than he does sometimes,” a conservative consultant said.

[snip]

I can’t help but find all of this rather ridiculous. For one thing, Liz Cheney’s penchant for dishonesty rivals that of her father’s. For another, the “Cheney” name is not exactly a strong political “brand” right now.

I think I just did myself an injury. Gales of laughter are a tougher workout than you might think.

But Liz Cheney’s not the GOP’s only hope for salvation. They may also turn to a Newt:

Unctuous doesn’t begin to describe Newt Gingrich’s “serious look” at a 2012 presidential run.

Isn’t that a fine “how do you do” to return to from a nice vacation:

The Republican defeats in the last two election cycles have presented an opportunity for Gingrich to return to prominence, noted more than one Republican strategist.

“Since Republicans don’t hold power, there’s a void of leadership,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. “And Newt Gingrich is trying to take advantage of this opportunity as much as possible and try to assert himself as one of the leading voices of the Republican Party.”

…That could include, the strategist said, the possibility running for president in 2012.

I don’t care what sort of convenient “wipe myself clean with the spirit of the Lord” conversion Newt Gingrich claims to have made just before the next election cycle.

There is no stain remover strong enough to get rid of his self-inflicted pit stains. None.

I’m sorry. You’re right. I should’ve told you to have a barf bag handy.

They also seem to be working on their winning strategy for 2010 and 2012, which consists entirely of trying to scare us shitless. LithiumCola at Daily Kos has a possible explanation for that:

We can see some of what is going on here, I think, by taking a look at the Pew report on “Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2009″:

The proportion of independents now equals its highest level in 70 years. Owing to defections from the Republican Party, independents are more conservative on several key issues than in the past. While they like and approve of Barack Obama, as a group independents are more skittish than they were two years ago about expanding the social safety net and are reluctant backers of greater government involvement in the private sector. Yet at the same time, they continue to more closely parallel the views of Democrats rather than Republicans on the most divisive core beliefs on social values, religion and national security.

There are many more independents than Republicans, right now; but more independents than usual are leaning right in every area other than national security. That is to say, the weirdness gets deeper: if Republicans want to win back some of these independents they are decidedly not going with their best play. They should be going with the economy; they are going with war. This is puzzling, but it seems to me that it admits of an obvious, if troubling, interpretation.

Perhaps the Republican strategy is not to win over these burgeoning independents by enlarging the Republican tent, but rather to scare them into voting R even if they remain too disgusted with the GOP to actually join the party. The Republican party, with a strategy so understood, need take no heed of moderation or of ordinary political practice at all.

Considering the other two issues they and Independents diverge on – social values and religion – I can see why they’re going for the pants-pissing terror option. If they’re successful, they get to pander to their base and win Independents. The strategy often worked for them in the past.

At this time, I would like to refer them to the story of the boy who cried wolf. That is, if the lessons contained within fairy tales aren’t too complicated for them to comprehend. I fear they might be.

Rounding out our firmament of GOP shining stars, I present you one of the only people in the Known Universe who liked Michael Steele’s “change in a teabag” speech. Ladies and gentlemen, Sarah Palin:

Although Michael Steele’s “Change in a teabag” speech (highlights) was widely mocked for its signature line (“change is being delivered in a teabag, and that’s a wonderful thing”), Sarah Palin is now saying it was absolutely fabulous.

Politico‘s Andy Barr reports:

GOP Gov. Sarah Palin weighed in with a statement from Alaska.

“Today, we have a friend in RNC Chairman Michael Steele, and his bold and courageous speech defines his leadership goals that will guide us all through this most difficult time for our nation.”

And that’s probably all we ever need know about Sarah Palin’s judgement. Well, lack thereof.

As far as guides through the political wilderness the Cons have found themselves in, I think they’d have been better off with a Garmin.

Let’s take a brief detour to catch up with the “Nancy Pelosi’s mean to the CIA. Oh, and she lies, too!1!!11!” crowd. How’s that storyline working out for them? Oh, dear:

GOP Senator Richard Shelby appears to have botched a key fact about the CIA torture briefing he received in September 2002, claiming that he was in such a briefing along with Nancy Pelosi, Porter Goss, and Bob Graham.

In fact, the CIA briefing docs show that he was only briefed with Graham, while Pelosi and Goss had been briefed earlier that month.

Shelby is the only Congressional official briefed on interrogations who has been willing to say explicitly that he’d been told torture and waterboarding had been used. So anything that raises questions about the accuracy of his memory on this is key.

On a scale of believability, we can travel a pretty steep line from credible (Bob Graham) through fairly credible (Pelosi), down toward take-with-a-kilogram-sized-salt-grain (Goss) and bottoming out towards you’ve-got-to-be-fucking-kidding-me territory (the CIA). Shelby and the rest of the Cons fall somewhere below that, in territory the graph is unable to measure.

Still, he didn’t quite make asshole of the day:

To the surprise of well, no one, the conservatives of the Senate have announced their standards for a good Supreme Court Justice:

Sen. Jon Kyl made clear he would use the procedural delay if Obama follows through on his pledge to nominate someone who takes into account human suffering and employs empathy from the benc
h.

Boy I sure hope Obama asked potential nominees which they enjoyed more, drowning kittens or puppies? Kyl is going to want to know.

Have I told you lately just how happy I am these fucktards are no longer in charge?

“Intense Discovery”

Does the image to the left bring you to tears? No? What if I told you those little black blotches were nanodiamonds, and they provided evidence for theories that a comet might have helped bring the age of the sabretooth and mammoth to an end 12,900 years ago?

Imagine sitting in front of a computer screen and electron microscope, waiting for the moment that would make or break your theory. You’re sampling glacial deposits from three time periods: the Younger Dryas Boundary, and the layers immediately above and below. You think a comet broke into fragments (think Shoemaker-Levy) and hit the Earth, leaving no discernible impact crater but doing a serious disservice to the gigantic mammals running about. You’re at the make-or-break moment: if nanodiamonds, which would help confirm your theory, are found sprinkled liberally in the layers above and below the Younger Dryas Boundary, your theory is good as dead. Have you made a true discovery? Were you on the wrong track?

The moment of truth comes. You see those glorious black speck scattered throughout the Younger Dryas Boundary – and only the Younger Dryas Boundary.

I’ll let geologist James Kennett describe that moment when a breakthrough is made:

Moments of intense discovery are very emotional for scientists. when scientists make discoveries that they think are really important – breakthroughs, if you like, eureka moments – there’s an elation – there’s an elation, an emotion. These are emotional moments.

-from Nova, “Last Extinction

So much for scientists being emotionless drones, and science itself being boring ol’ number-crunching, eh?

The story of their search for evidence for their impact theory was interesting enough, but I loved that Nova episode more for what it showed about science. It’s hard work, sometimes dull work, and there are no guarantees. But when it all comes together, it’s glorious. And it can move you to tears.


Pretty amazing. There’s interviews with the discoverers and other info at this link, if you’re interested.

Catching Up with Ecstathy

The problem with not subscribing to blogs is that you miss a blogger’s return from an absence. Which means you miss some awesome stuff. And if you haven’t been over to Ecstathy lately, you’ve really missed some awesome stuff.

Like infinite cake.

And a quote that should shut down any “you can’t be moral without God” arguments, at least as long as it take the religious blatherer to pick his/her jaw up off the floor:

In a comment by Ian Spedding at John Wilkins blog, he said: “Ask them if they believe their chosen deity is a capricious being or one of reason and order. If the former, why follow a moral code that was thought up on a whim, if the latter, what is to prevent us from reasoning to the same conclusions all by ourselves.”

You missed a delightful Ida LOL:


And a link to a thought-provoking opinion piece by The Age columnist Michael Coulter:

It’s a puzzling thing about religion that its words, which generally urge us to bolster our better natures and remedy our faults, so rarely match its actions. It seems to me that while an individual’s faith can be a profound personal journey that might even make them a better person, a society’s faith is akin to mass psychosis.

It’s good to have you back, Efrique.

Classy

Laughing too hard right now to come up with a suitably snarky intro:

I’m actually sympathetic to the wingnuts who are angry about the national GOP “clearing the field” for Charlie Crist for the senate seat from Florida. I think people have a right to run in primaries and the political establishment should be more respectful of democracy. The grassroots of both parties are growing increasingly resistant to their party establishmenst steamrolling them into accepting politicians who don’t reflect their values and philosophy and it’s going to be a challenge for some time to come.

Having said that, I have to admit that the way the movement conservatives are going about this is so puerile and stupid that you can’t really blame the establishment for stepping in. Ed Kilgore reports:

The “Not One Red Cent” webpage is quite a piece of work. It features a sort of manifesto with the shouting headline: NOT ONE RED CENT FOR RINO SELLOUTS! (the exclamation point is a bit redundant, but I guess that’s a stylistic decision).

Yesterday the site included a post by Richard McEnroe, entitled “A Florida Parable!” and with a subtitle that I cannot reprint in a family-friendly blog, that played off a bizarre news story about two Russian tourists who got caught in Florida having sex with a porcupiine. McEnroe “revealed” the identity of the tourists by displaying photos of Michael Steele and Charlie Crist.

Nice, eh?

But remember, we liberals are the ones who’re poisoning the national discourse with our dirty, disgusting diatribes.

Happy Hour Discurso

Today’s opining on the public discourse.

It’s a holiday weekend, but stupid never sleeps. And there are few things more stupid in today’s political landscape than the birthers:

If the left were drawing up a script for the right to follow, which would make conservatives look hopelessly ridiculous, they might come up with something like this. (via John Cole)

The electoral system has failed to satisfy lingering questions about Barack Obama’s eligibility to serve as president.
The press has failed to satisfy those questions. The courts have failed to satisfy those questions. The Congress has failed to satisfy those questions.

But the people are still asking.

That’s how Joseph Farah, editor and chief executive officer of WND, explains the petition he initiated several months ago that has collected nearly 400,000 names of Americans demanding answers as to Obama’s elidibility [sic] as well as the outpouring of financial support for his new campaign to erect billboards around the country asking the simple question: “Where’s the birth certificate?”

In just five days, the billboard campaign has been backed by about $45,000 in donations.

Obviously, the Birthers’ argument is nuts. But the fact that they’re still at it, seven months after the election, is extraordinary.

The birth certificate, for their information, is in Hawaii, where it’s always been. But if they want to tilt at windmills, that’s fine. Maybe it’ll keep them out of other kinds of trouble.

Meanwhile, remedial math classes are in order for certain wingnuts:

On Thursday, Vets for Freedom Chairman Pete Hegseth went onto the Corner to criticize President Obama for his speech on national security. Not surprisingly, he praised Vice President Cheney’s address, calling it a “gutsy, straightforward, and yet sophisticated approach.” To underscore his point, he wrote, “Laying aside the debate over what is and what isn’t ‘torture,’ it’s hard to argue with 8+ years of safety since 9/11.” The problem, as the site Best of Both Worlds points out, is that it hasn’t been eight years since 9/11:
9/11 happened on 9/11/2001. We’re in 5/22/2009. That’s less than 8 years. In his mind, George Bush kept the country safe for 2 presidential terms. Some other dude was President right up till 9/11.

Atrios adds, “NRO contributor attempts to count to 8, fails.”

Indeed.

In case you were wondering if the age-old question “Would Jesus torture?” has been answered, it has:

Here’s a Red State comment, via John Cole:

It’s likely even Jesus would have OK’d water boarding if it would have saved his Mom. He would’ve done the same to save his Dad, or any one of His disciples. For that matter, He even died to save all humans.

[snip]

I wonder where Jesus stood on crucifixion? Was he for it in the case of a ticking time bomb?


We breathlessly anticipate the answer.

I do believe it’s time for Ben Nelson to make it official. He’s Con through and through:

This morning, Fox News Sunday hosted a debate on national security between Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), but it turned out that the two senators agreed on most issues. Nelson declared that trials of Guantanamo detainees should not take place in the United States and detainees should not be imprisoned here. He distinguished between terrorists like the Blind Sheikh — who “committed violations of American law” — and those at Guantanamo to say the latter should be kept out of the U.S.:

NELSON: I think the tribunals can occur anywhere, and I prefer not to see them occur in America, within the continental United States. Once they’re convicted, I’m assuming they will be, then I think we need to work out with their countries an arrangement where they’re incarcerated there. [...]

But for those detainees who have violated the rules of war, we don’t have to worry about bringing them here. I think they need to be kept elsewhere, wherever that is. I don’t want to see them come on American soil.

Nelson also seemed to suggest that torture — or “enhanced techniques,” as he called it — could be used in the future:

NELSON: What we need to do is make sure that the intelligence information that’s gathered is accurate, that we do everything within our power to get good intelligence, and it may or may not consist of coming from enhanced techniques.


Maybe we could trade him for Colin Powell.

And, finally, if you want to get an understanding of what’s behind the gun frenzy, this Daily Kos post has a pretty good idea. Here’s a teaser:

There is no impending bill before Congress that would increase taxes on ammunition or guns. There’s been no suggestion from the President of such a move. So why would people believe it?

This weekend, NRA leaders were keen to lay out in stark terms the threat they see in the Obama administration. Gun owners face “the slickest, most aggressive anti-gun White House in history,” said CEO Wayne Lapierre.

Other NRA brass predict that the Second Amendment could be repealed within the next five years.

Starting well before the election, the NRA has waged a campaign designed to instill fear in the heart of any gun owner. Throughout the campaign, President Obama made it clear that he was a supporter of individual gun rights. There has been no move to restrict access to guns. In fact, the passage of the new rule allowing loaded weapons into National Parks — reversing a rule signed by Ronald Reagan — demonstrates that the gun lobby has the power in Washington not just to hold the line, but extend gun rights in nearly any way they can imagine. Not only that, recent Supreme Court rulings have put gun ownership on more solid Constitutional ground than, well, ever.

The NRA should be celebrating. Instead…

Despite these successes, Mr. Lapierre, the NRA CEO, spoke almost in doomsday terms this weekend about opponents of the Second Amendment. “The bomb is armed and the fuse is lit,” he said. “They are going to come at us with everything they’ve got, and we are going to be ready for them. If they want to fight, we will fight.”

As gun rights are victorious in court, as gun ownership clears every hurdle in Congress, and with no pro
spect of restrictions on the horizon, the NRA is still screaming that the end is nigh.

As the post title says, “You have the right to be played for a fool.” And, alas, there are plenty of fools to be played.

Sunday Sensational Science

Overselling Ida: A Cautionary Tale

Brian Switek’s Brilliant Discovery


If you haven’t heard of Ida, the perfectly preserved Darwinius masillae, you’ve been living in a box. Plenty of information about this remarkable but not utterly revolutionary fossil shall follow. But first, I want to share an illustrative personal anecdote.

A couple of day ago, my coworker, whom I shall call C, asked me if I’d seen the doodle on Google. Indeed I had. And I’d had a brief moment of the warm fuzzies, because it was nice to see that cute little sketch of Ida there in place of the usual logo. Those warm fuzzies turned to the cold ohforfucksakes when C started babbling about her being a “missing link.”

This is a normally intelligent man. I rolled my eyes. “No, she’s not.”

“Yes, she is!”

I was in the midst of Brian Switek’s wonderful post on the hype, which will be highlighted below. I’d read several ScienceBlogs posts by then, dissecting the discovery, and I attempted to explain to C that while Ida was awesome, she wasn’t the missing link. Indeed, “missing link” is complete bullshit. His response was to inform me that he’d take the word of scientists published in a peer-reviewed journal over what bloggers said any day, and oh yes there are missing links! It didn’t matter to him that the peer-reviewed paper had major, major problems, that the whole process had been tainted by publicity stunts, or that the bloggers in question were scientists who know the peer-review process intimately. To him, that process is infallible. Therefore, Ida is the missing link.

So this edition of Sunday Sensational Science is dedicated to C, who reminds me that scientists must resist overhyping their finds in order to score History Channel documentaries, not all peer-reviewed science journals are created equal (although the public doesn’t know that), and that having a stable of scientists manning the blogs is a sovereign remedy against sensationalism. Now if we could just get the general public to realize that…

Let’s begin with missing links. As in, there are no “missing links”:

Again, the press are talking about “the missing link“. Let’s get one thing clear. There is no missing link. Rather, there are an indefinite number of missing branches. To have a missing link, you need to visualise evolution as a chain. If there’s a gap in the chain, then you have a missing link. But evolution, at least at the scale of animals and plants, is mostly a tree.

Keep that in mind as the History Channel, other press outlets, and hysterical creationists endlessly repeat the “missing link” crap. THERE IS NO MISSING LINK. Tattoo it on your hand if you have to.

Now. On to Ida.

Ida has been presented as a near-miraculous superfossil. Our first clue that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark probably should’ve been the email Brian Switek received:

Late last week I received a rather curious e-mail. It read;

WORLD RENOWNED SCIENTISTS REVEAL A REVOLUTIONARY SCIENTIFIC FIND THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING

Ground-Breaking Global Announcement

What: An international press conference to unveil a major historic scientific find. After two years of research a team of world-renowned scientists will announce their findings, which address a long-standing scientific puzzle.

The find is lauded as the most significant scientific discovery of recent times. History brings this momentous find to America and will follow with the premiere of a major television special on Monday, May 25 at 9 pm ET/PT chronicling the discovery and investigation.

Who: Mayor Michael Bloomberg; International team of scientists who researched the find; Abbe Raven, President and CEO, A&E Television Networks; Nancy Dubuc, Executive Vice President and General Manager, History; Ellen Futter, President, American Museum of Natural History

“The most significant scientific discovery of recent times”, eh? What could it be? Life on Mars? Time-travel? Teleportation? The Higgs Boson? A diet cola that doesn’t taste absolutely awful? Well, no. It’s all about a little primate from Germany.

When a paper is released in conjunction with a documentary, everybody should put their skeptic’s hats on and brace for the worst.

Brian engaged in a bit of prediction:

Consider, for example, the grand claims made about finds like Darwinius. It is being heavily promoted but scientists have not yet had a chance to see the fossil or read the paper describing it. When they get a call from a journalist or are asked their opinion on it, then, it can be difficult to discuss the find because they do not know the details. This can be harmful as it can not only lead to the spread of overblown assertions but it can also make us look foolish if these finds do not turn out to be all they were cracked up to be. This could especially be the case with Darwinius. Though heralded in documentaries and in the news as one of our direct ancestors, it is probably a very interesting lemur-like primate on a different evolutionary branch. I can only imagine the field day creationists are going to have if this is the case, and I am frustrated by the way mass media outlets manage to bungle genuinely interesting scientific discoveries.

He was so right.

The paper was published to a media frenzy. The drama got so bad that some science bloggers were forced to resort to emergency satire:

Yesterday, the entire world changed noticeably as the media, accompanied by some scientists, unveiled a stunning fossilised primate. The creature has been named Darwinius masillae, but also goes by Ida, the Link, the Chosen One and She Who Will Save Us All.

The new fossil is remarkably complete and well-preserved, although the media glossed over these facts in favour of the creature’s ability to cure swine flu. Ida was hailed as a “missing link” in human evolution, beautifully illustrating our transition from leaping about in trees to rampant mass-media sensationalism.

No one’s disputing that Ida’s a remarkable find. PZ sang her praises thusly:

What’s so cool about it?

Age. It’s 47 million years old. That’s interestingly old…it puts us deep into the primate family tree.

Preservation. This is an awesome fossil: it’s almost perfectly complete, with all the bones in place, preserved in its death posture. There is a halo of darkly stained material around it; this is a remnant of the flesh and fur that rotted in place, and allows us to see a rough outline of the body and make estimates of muscle size. Furthermore, the guts and stomach contents are preserved. Ida’s last meal was fruit and leaves, in case you wanted to know.

Life stage. Ida is a young juvenile, estimate to be right on the transition from requiring parental care to independent living. That means she has a mix of baby teeth and adult teeth — she’s a two-fer, giving us information about both.

Finds like Ida are extremely rare, and she’s justly being celebrated as an important find. But the overselling is, ironically, selling her short. It’s like promising someone a Ferrari and delivering them an Altima. That’s where buyer beware comes in handy, and Brian Switek’s done an excellent job kicking tires on this one:

Some researchers have long maintained that adapids are better candidates for the ancestors of anthropoids, with Philip Gingerich (one of the authors of the Darwinius paper) being a vocal proponent of this view. It is not terribly surprising, then, that the authors of the Darwinius paper posit that adapids are more closely related to anthropoids than tarsiers and omomyids, and they rely on two tactics to make their case.

The authors of the paper try to frame their hypothesis in a historical manner. They claim that adapids have been barred from a close anthropoid relationship on the basis of soft-tissue characteristics that do not fossilize. This would mean that the association between omomyids, tarsiers, and anthropoids would hang by a nose, but this is not true. As reviewed in popular books like Chris Beard’s The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey and technical volumes like Anthropoid Origins, the relationship between omomyids, tarsiers, and anthropoids is based upon a wide array of fossil and neontological data. I can’t imagine why the authors of the new paper would suggest otherwise unless they were trying to construct a false historiography in order to show their fossil in a better light.

This shoddy scholarship is matched by a weak attempt to show that Darwinius has more anthropoid-like traits than tarsiers or omomyids do. In order for the authors of the paper to make a convincing case they would have to undertake a careful, systematic analysis of the anatomy of Darwinius in comparison to other primates, yet they did not do this. Instead they combed the literature for 30 traits that might help ascertain the placement of Darwinius in the primate family tree and filled in whether each trait was present or absent in Ida’s skeleton.

That’s the post I was reading when C started spouting off about peer-review vs. bloggers. I sent him the link. Really, when you think about it, science bloggers engaging in research blogging are peer-reviewers. And then you have Carl Zimmer, one of our best science journalists, engaging in a little peer review of his own:

It finally got to the point where I found myself dispatching emails to two prominent primatologists–John Fleagle of SUNY Stony Brook and Chris Beard of the Carnegie Museum–to see what they thought.

Both researchers agreed that it was a lovely fossil, in terms of its exquisite preservation. “It’s really wonderful,” Fleagle said. It’s got bones, fur, and even its last meal in its stomach. Fleagle observed that it will be possible to learn many details about the biology of early primates from Darwinius, down to the stages by which it teeth erupted.

[snip]

…I asked what Fleagle and Beard thought about the actual argument in the paper, which has to do with where humans, apes, and monkeys (known as anthropoids) fit in the primate family tree. Some of the co-authors on the new paper have argued in the past that an extinct group of primates called adapiforms gave rise to anthropoids. Others have favored a common ancestry with small primates known as tarsiers. (Laelaps has a nice history of the debate.) The authors of the new paper argue that Darwinius is an adapiform, but it also has traits that link it with anthropoids. So, according to them, it’s an early relative of our own anthropoid lineage.

Both Fleagle and Beard were not impressed with this argument. Fleagle observed that, ironically, most of the evidence presented in the paper is old news. Except for the ankle and a few other traits, most of the traits offered to link adapiforms to anthropoids “have been known for decades,” said Fleagle. It’s nice to have those traits all in one primate fossil, but they don’t advance the debate. Fleagle is intrigued by the anthropoid-like ankle of the fossil, but he also notes that it’s “roadkill,” flattened down to a 2-millimeter pancake. He wonders whether their interpretation of the ankle will hold up to scrutiny.

Beard has similar things to say via email.

I’ve been deluged today by journalists regarding this. It is a marketing campaign for the ages. The fossil is nice because it is so complete, but it is a rather vanilla-flavored adapiform that does not differ appreciably from other members of that well-known group of Eocene primates…

Beard was also puzzled that the authors did not compare Darwinius to an important early anthropoid fossil Beard found, known as Eosimias. In fact, he was underwhelmed by the entire comparison of Darwinius to other primates (a phylogenetic analysis):

The phylogenetic analysis is not very complete, and I would certainly interpret many of the characters they do cite very differently than they do. But one of the most shocking things of all about the technical paper is that they found room to cite 89 references, but there is not one mention of Eosimias to be found there. This is bizarre indeed. In a paper that purports to tell us something about anthropoid origins, the authors have conveniently ignored the single most significant fossil that has been published to date. Incomprehensible.

From all available evidence, it seems the authors of the paper were more interested in trimming facts to fit their theories than in good science, and a lot of that motivation probably came from their chance at fame and fortune. It’s a shame. Carl’s right: science is being held hostage:

So, to recap: it appears that both PLOS and Atlantic Productions did not give journalists any time to consult with outside experts before launching a major press conference with a huge blitz of media attention. In other words, science writers who were trying to do their job well and responsibly were actively hindered. Those who declared ridiculous things, such as claiming that human origins were now solved once and for all, were not.

This, my friends, is not the way to do science. PZ points out some of the many issues:

This is not helping. It is inflating a good discovery beyond all reason, and when the public hears the creationists declare that it’s one fossil of a monkey-like creature, and they’re right, it’s going to damage the credibility of science.

Seed Media has a bit of a scoop: they’ve got an interview with a PLoS One editor, a History Channel executive, and Jørn Hurum, the scientist behind all the promotion. It’s appalling. They’re bragging about how a “production company got in on the ground floor”. Shall we anticipate the brave new world when paleontologists have to beg for McDonald’s happy meal tie-ins to get funding?

Ida deserved better than this. She’s an amazing little creature, and she’s getting lost in hype. Thankfully, Brian Switek’s rescuing her from the frenzy, and helping her demonstrate what she has to teach us:

First, how do we know that Ida was a female? It all comes down to a missing penis bone, or baculum. Many, if not most, mammals have a penis bone, and in fact our species is one of the “oddballs” in that males of our species do not. Take a look at the restoration of the transitional pinniped, Puijila, that was announced a few weeks ago. See that long bone sticking out from in front of its pelvis? That’s a baculum, and the presence of such a bone indicates that this specimen of Puijila was a male.

While our species might not have a baculum, other primates do, including fossil ones. Darwinius lived alongside another kind of lemur-like adapid primate called Europolemur, and fossils from the same Messel shales show that male Europolemur had large baculums. Given their close evolutionary relationship between Europolemur and Darwinius it can be reasonably assumed that male Darwinius had baculums, too, but Ida’s skeleton does not have a penis bone. Is it possible that this specimen of Darwinius could have been, pardon the expression, dis-membered sometime after death and before fossilization? It is possible, but given the exceptional preservation of the fossil, including gut contents and a body outline created by bacteria, it is doubtful. The lack of a baculum attached to this fossil makes it highly probable that Ida was indeed a female.

[snip]

Even though I have been critical of the way this entire “primate roll-out” has been handled, I have tried to stress how amazing a fossil Darwinius is. The sex and age of a fossil might seem like unimportant matters, but how often do we get such a clear window into the biology of an extinct species? Right now the public is still being deluged with the message that Ida is the “missing link”, but I hope that what Ida’s skeleton can actually tell us about how she lived and died receive greater attention as we continue to discuss her bones.

Scientists like Brian will ensure that Ida doesn’t get lost in the hubub. And maybe, just maybe, this is a precious teachable moment. Wouldn’t it be lovely Ida not only taught us about the evolution of primates, but helped the general public understand good science versus bad or biased science? She might even save us from PZ’s nightmare of McDonalds-sponsered paleontology.

That would make her a miracle indeed.