Monthly Archives: October 2015

Protection of Climate Scientists Against Harassment

It is the fourth quarter, the team you hate (perhaps the Green Bay Packers) have been winning the whole time, but over the last few minutes your team has scored enough points to be just barely ahead. And, you have the momentum. The other team has many key players out with injuries, your players are really clicking, and all the stats have turned your way. Nothing is assured, but you are likely to win this game (may be you are the Vikings, so this is an extreme event).

But the other team (hey, let’s change them from the Green Bay Packers to the New Orleans Saints) is starting to play dirty. The referees are blind (maybe they’ve been paid off?) and are not seeing many of the obvious penalties, and their defense is trying really hard to injure your quarterback.

That was a metaphor. The following is an important press release from the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Yesterday, CSLDF filed a brief as amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” urging the Arizona Court of Appeals to protect climate scientists’ files from invasive open records requests. CSLDF filed its brief in support of the Arizona Board of Regents, which has defended the records of two University of Arizona climate scientists from massive and harassing open records requests by the Energy & Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal).

E&E Legal, as detailed further in our brief (available here), touts its mission as “free-market environmentalism through strategic litigation” and a key part of its strategy has been repeatedly misusing open records laws to go after huge swaths of climate scientists’ records. Its work has been described as “filing nuisance suits to disrupt important academic research”[1] as part of an aim to convince “the public to believe human-caused global warming is a scientific fraud.”[2]

In this case, E&E Legal claims that Arizona state open records laws entitle it to virtually unfettered access to two U of A professors’ files, and it has sought an astonishing 13 years of emails and other documents from both Dr. Malcolm Hughes and Dr. Jonathan Overpeck – 26 years of records in total. E&E Legal claims it needs these records because it is conducting a “transparency project,” and it has argued that these two researchers were somehow part of a “scientific-technological elite” that has “successfully corrupted public policy” with respect to “climate alarmism.”[3]

The University of Arizona turned over some records to E&E Legal, and litigated to withhold others. A March 2015 trial court decision validated the University’s decision to deny large portions of E&E Legal’s requests. (You can read more about the trial court decision here.)

CSLDF’s October 26th amicus brief asks the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division II, to uphold the trial court’s decision and protect climate scientists’ private correspondence and other records against E&E Legal’s intrusive requests. As described in our brief, E&E Legal’s requests are “part of a broader strategy of attacking individual scientists as a way to try to discredit theories or even entire fields of study.”[4] We agree with the Arizona Board of Regents, which argued before the trial court that these requests seek ultimately “to attack [researchers’] science, criticize their interactions with each other and publicly assault how they speak about or defend themselves against the increasingly small group of outliers who continue to deny man’s role in global climate change.”[5]

Unfortunately, abusive open records requests on publicly funded scientists have been an increasingly prominent method of using the legal system to attack climate scientists. Open records laws, namely the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or state equivalents, are intended to serve the public good and provide transparency on government decision-making by allowing citizens to request copies of administrative records – but open records laws can also be twisted into a tool for harassment of publicly funded scientists, such as those employed by the government or public universities.[6] Climate scientists in particular have been regularly subjected to attacks via abuse of open records laws, by E&E Legal and other ideologically motivated groups. In addition to the Arizona requests currently in litigation, E&E Legal has also filed similar open records requests in, at least, Alabama, Delaware, Illinois, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.[7]

In fact, CSLDF’s initial project was to generate funding and publicity for the defense of Dr. Michael Mann, who was on the receiving end of several invasive open records requests from E&E Legal. E&E Legal – then named the American Tradition Institute – sought massive numbers of emails and other documents that Dr. Mann had written or received over the course of six years of employment at the University of Virginia. After years of legal battling, the Virginia Supreme Court ultimately agreed in 2014 that the state’s open records protections included protecting research and academic “free thought and expression.”

But defeat in Virginia hardly slowed E&E Legal down, because “while they lose repeatedly, in one way they are successful: they confuse the public debate, and force universities and scientists to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending themselves.”[8] There is also a substantial time element – in Arizona, Dr. Hughes and Dr. Overpeck spent ten weeks and six weeks, respectively, culling and reviewing emails potentially responsive to E&E Legal’s requests.

Consequently, CSLDF has asked the Arizona Court of Appeals not only to affirm the trial court’s ruling but also “to make clear that, in the absence of a showing of exceptional circumstances, certain documents related to research are exempt from disclosure under the Arizona Public Records Law.” In particular, we believe that, unless there are extreme circumstances or potential conflicts of interest at play, “prepublication drafts, editorial comments, peer reviews, email (between and among researchers, co-authors, reviewers and other collaborators), unfinished or inactive research, and unused data” should be presumptively protected. ”Confidentiality must of course be balanced against the societal goods that traditionally justify public-record laws; CSLDF does not believe the presumptive exemptions it asks the Court to adopt will impede any appropriate use of the Arizona Public Records Law.”[9]

CSLDF is committed to protecting the scientific endeavor, and it is fighting back against legal attacks on climate scientists. We hope the Arizona Court of Appeals upholds the trial court decision, and implements protections to help prevent future attacks on public researchers. The best climate science needs climate scientists who can do their work free of harassment.

Many thanks to our wonderful legal team at Mayer Brown and Osborn Maledon for all their help.

To here to see the version with the footnotes.

Go HERE to donate to the fund.

Clean Energy: The State of the States

One of the problems we have in making a quick transition to clean energy in the US is the fact that energy production and distribution is typically regulated by states, and some states are not as smart as other states. Or, if they are smart, they are controlled by political forces intent on maintaining fossil carbon based fuels as our primary energy source, which of course, is a totally bone-headed policy.

When it comes to the transition to clean energy, we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way. The easy way is to encourage the picking of low hanging fruit, such as solar panels on flat spots, at the same time we work towards tackling some of the more expensive projects that require more up front investment but that will eventually pay off. The hard way, of course, is the total collapse of civilization. Most imaginable post apocalyptic worlds don’t use to much fossil fuel!

And, whether the hard way or the easy way is the most likely path at any moment in time is often a matter of what is happening on the state level. Here are a few examples of what is going on right now around the US.

In Maryland, a state commission is calling for the state to pledge slashing greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030. That sounds like a large amount, but it is actually a modest and easily attainable goal. They should probably be going for more.

The goal — which if passed into law would be one of the most ambitious set so far by a state — drew unanimous support of the 26-member panel, which includes lawmakers, environmentalists, representatives of business and labor, and top officials in the Hogan administration.

The recommendation is likely to lead to legislation in the General Assembly, which must decide next year whether to stick with the goal it set in 2009 of reducing climate-warming emissions 25 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, Texas and California are leading the nation in carbon emissions. The overall pattern of carbon emissions by state (using two year old data because for some reason those who keep track of these things haven’t discovered twitter and spreadsheets) is largely a matter of population size and similar factors.

But while we might expect California to be high on the list, Texas is way way higher, to the point one wonders what they are up to down in the Lone Star State.

Data released this week by the administration shows each state’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions between 1990 and 2013. Texas doesn’t just top the list, its emissions — 641 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — are almost double those of California, the nation’s second largest carbon emitter, which spewed 353 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

On a per-capita basis, Wyoming leads all the other states in greenhouse gas pollution.

In New Mexico, Santa Fe has an interesting program in mind. There, The Heath Foundation, a private 501c(3) representing the community interests of Jim Heath, has a plan. Here’s part of it:

  • HeathSUN will provide a complete rooftop photovoltaic solar system for homeowners in Santa Fe County at no charge to the customer. HeathSUN owns and maintains each rooftop solar system, and the ancillary metering and control equipment, and there’s no lien on the house.
  • Under HeathSUN’s set-up, customers will continue to have access to electricity from PNM when needed. For solar energy from the rooftop system, the customer pays HeathSUN 80 percent of the going PNM rate, so the solar power’s cost would rise and fall with how much PNM is charging. The customer gets separate bills from HeathSUN and PNM.
  • In a new twist, HeathSUN says there will be no “net metering” in this model, meaning no HeathSUN solar power would flow through a PNM meter, the standard way to provide a seamless household electrical system. When someone turns on an appliance in a HeathSUN house, technology in the home’s own electrical control box decides whether to pull from the rooftop solar system or from PNM…
  • In Hawaii, there is a plan to charge up some big batteries with a big solar array, for use to meet evening/nighttime demands.

    The nation’s leading residential installer is building the project near Lihu’e on Kaua’i’s southeast corner. The project includes a 13 MW photovoltaic solar array, but is unique in that it includes its own solution to the intermittency problem that solar power faces.

    The power generated by the PV cells will be used solely to charge a 13 MW battery array capable of providing 52 MWh to customers of Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC), the island’s sole electricity provider. That means the solar cells will charge the batteries during the height of the day, and the batteries will discharge the stored power to customers during the evening peak between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m.

    “Anyone that’s been out to Kauai will notice that they have a lot of solar on the island and really don’t have any appetite at all for solar at midday,” Rudd said. “If anything, they were already in a bit of a curtailment state during certain days. So, they love solar, they want more because it’s cheaper than what they otherwise would realize, but they don’t need it during the day.”

    New York State is working out the details of how to deploy meters to allow the grid to become smart.

    There is a big waste-to-energy project in the works in Oregon.

    And that is a sampling of the news that came across my desk just today.

    Tropical Cyclone Chapala: Historic Storm

    Update: Saturday Morning

    The storm is likely to start affecting land Sunday, and to make landfall late Sunday or some time Monday, probably as a Category I equivalent.

    Meanwhile this is the first tropical storm I’ve ever seen associated on the Internet with sites that seem to want to plant viruses on your computer. Stick with trusted sources, like the Wonder Blog or Yours Truly.

    Update Friday AM:

    TC Chapala is expected to be the strongest cyclone ever recorded in this part of the Indian Ocean basin. At present the storm is strengthening and is just under Category 5 strength (it will probably remain in the Category 4 range). This is the third time a major tropical cyclone has formed in this area since 1945, and the last two were Gonu in 2007 and Phet in 2010. Chapala may become the first tropical cyclone in recorded history to directly hit Yemen.

    The storm is expected to bring significant rain to parts of Yemen and Oman, and a bit of Saudi Arabia. Coastal areas of Yemen may have up to a foot of rain. Some parts of this arid region will experience about eight years worth of rainfall over a 48 hour period, according to the Weather Channel.

    The storm surge could be as much as three meters (15 feet). While the storm is expected to weaken before landfall, it is likely to retain major cyclone/hurricane status.

    The reason the storm formed and became so strong is likely the record breaking sea surface temperatures in the region. These sea surface temperatures partly the result of El Nino, but also, of overall global warming.

    Original Post
    I don’t think there are a lot of tropical cyclones (hurricanes) in the Indian Basin, but one is forming up and is expected to be pretty severe when it hits the southern portion of the Arabian Peninsula.

    From the Current Storm Information section on Wikipedia:

    As of 17:30 IST (12:00 UTC), 29 October 2015, Severe Cyclonic Storm Chapala was located near latitude 14.1°N and longitude 63.3°E, about 1,040 km (650 mi) east-southeast of Salalah, Oman and 1,150 km (710 mi) west-southwest of Mumbai, India. Maximum sustained 3-minute winds are estimated near 100 km/h (60 mph), gusting to 120 km/h (75 mph). Minimum central pressure is about 992 hPa (29.29 inHg). Dvorak intensity is at T3.5. The storm is expected to move west-northwestwards, intensify into a very severe cyclonic storm in the next 12 hours and subsequently develop into an extremely severe cyclonic storm in the next 48 hours. It is then expected to move towards the eastern part of Yemen or the southern part of Oman.

    The map above is from Weather Underground.

    Third GOP Presidential Debate: Who won, who lost?

    The big loser in this debate was CNBC. The network chose to not let anyone who was not a subscriber see the debate live. Then, apparently, the moderators trivialized the debate and annoyed the debaters, who then attacked CNBC and the press in general. Then, today, when we look at the news stories about the debate, there are hardly any. Nobody seems to really care what happened last night.

    Another loser was Ben Carson. I’ve come to think of the online unofficial polls as useful to indicate overall opinions, and to show how those opinions change (we can discuss another time why this is a valid consideration). If you look at a selection of online polls, which I’ve informally posted below, Carson is not winning, or even second. Other indicators had suggested Carson had surpassed Trump, or caught up. If these informal online polls continue to do a reasonable job of indicating overall opinions (as they have for several weeks now vis-a-vis presidential debates) then it appears that Carson’s rise over the last few weeks was a flash in the pan. This could be explained by the very strong social media push back against him as more has been learned about his background and strange thoughts.

    People have been watching Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush because, for various reasons, they could have taken off in this primary process. They didn’t. They lose too.

    Who are the big winners? Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio had impressively large numbers in these informal polls, and given the brief snippets I’ve seen of them in the debate, they presented well (not that I agree with them on anything).

    The real winner of course, is Donald Trump who trumped the others in these polls, and did so by continuing unwaveringly with his strategy. Every day that goes by we are more assured that Trump will be the heir apparent for this nomination entering the first primaries and caucuses.

    Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 9.01.14 AM
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    Climate Change is Real, and Important, David Siegel

    A week or so ago, I got a couple of emails and tweets about a blog post on Medium.com, an internet thing of which I had never heard. Apparently Medium.com is a big giant blog that anybody can go and blog their big giant thoughts on: like tumblr, but more bloggy.

    Anyway, some dude by the name of David Siegel, Web Page Designer, posted a really long blog post about climate change on medium.com.

    Have you ever been poking around on the Intertoobs, when somebody comes along and says, “Hey, I never really thought about global warming/vaccination/evolution before, but suddenly and unexplainably I am now. And as I think about global warming/vaccination/evolution these innocent and valid questions arise and imma ask you about them.”

    Then the conversation proceeds to go down hill. The individual was really an anti-vaxer, a creationist, or a climate change denier all along, but was just pretending to be a thoughtful person who never thought about this issue before and just has some innocent question.

    But every single one of these questions is framed in terms of the anti or denial perspective, every “fact” noted and eventually adhered to is a discredited anti or denial meme, and even more amusingly, every statement made by this “innocent, curious” individual is the same exact statement made the last time a similar individual came along.

    David Siegel is one of those individuals, only instead of showing up on a Facebook thread or in the comments section of a blog post, he went to medium.com where anybody can post their thoughts. He wrote a long and detailed post, the sort of effort one would normally be paid to write by an interested party or editor, that had many of the standard misrepresentations of science found in the denialist septic system. It is well done but essentially evil, because climate change truly is real and important. I do wonder what motivates a person like David Siegel to do something like this. He is clearly intelligent, and an intelligent person has to know when they are misrepresenting the science so badly, even if they don’t understand the science itself.

    At first I chose to Ignore Siegel’s post because it was just another denier screed. But a couple of colleagues who are scientists or science writers also noted Siegel’s post, and we discussed it, and realized that this batch of anti-science rhetoric was making the rounds, being taken somewhat seriously by the gullible or politically susceptible.

    So we decided to write up a response. And, it is a good response, including discussion of, and references for, a number of key issues in climate change science. It is the kind of post one might want to keep handy and point out to people like Siegel, but with less time on their hands, when they show up on your facebook page or blog post.

    The effort was lead by Miriam O’Brien, and she put a lot of work into it. The other authors include Josh Halpern, Collin Maessen, Ken Rice, and Michael Tobis. Josh is aka Eli Rabett, blogging at Rabett Run. Collin writes at Real Skeptic. Miriam is, of course, Sou at HotWhopper. Ken Rice is known on the internet as …and Then There’s Physics. Michael Tobis plays himself and blogs at Planet 3.0 and Only In It For The Bold. I, of course, blog here.

    You can find links to all of those blogs at on the post itself.

    So, click through and read our stuff!

    We’re gonna need a better tin foil hat (MIT invents X-ray Glasses!)

    Those zany researchers at MIT are up to their usual shenanigans. They have come up with a device, which they call “our device,” that sees through walls. Here is a video of how it works, complete with background music to make you feel perfectly comfortable with it:

    Here’s their web site. Here is a LARGE FILE PDF with their paper describing the research.

    This is not new, but has been under development for a few years. But the work is progressing. I’m hoping this will lead to the development of the ultimate stud finder. I the meantime, I’m sure other applications will be discovered.

    On the Eve of GOP Debate, Only Two Candidates Matter

    There will be a third GOP debate on Wednesday night. If you don’t have the right cable or satellite subscription, apparently, you are not welcome to attend. (Correct me if I’m wrong, in the comments section below.)

    But who cares, really? It will be a low information event.

    The debate will be split into two parts, lower and higher ranking candidates separately, but the debate involving the higher ranking candidates will include more of them, and only two have anything close to poll numbers that matter. Not that polls are everything, but if you are a candidate that has failed to break 10% ever, and for several weeks have had single digit numbers, you are not really a candidate. Time to suspend your campaign. (Suspend instead of leave the race because you never know if a bomb is going to drop on one of the leading candidates. Usually, hopefully, a political bomb, not an actual bomb.) So, Wednesday’s debate will be very low value in terms of information.

    “What happened to Carly Fiorina?”, you may ask. This:

    Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 11.37.17 AM

    She had a bump, one time. I have no special analysis to offer here, but the bump may have been temporary for a number of reasons. Republicans don’t like women, we knew that, and she is one. Also, her history of not being a very good CEO may not have helped her argument that she’d be a good president because she was a good CEO. Also, getting caught in the lie wrt Planned Parenthood may have been a factor.

    The graphic at the top of the post is made from the HufPo Pollster, and includes only likely voters and non-partisan polling agencies. This is why Carson and Trump are about even. If you include all polls and all respondents, Trump trumps Carson.

    WHO tells us about red meat and processed meat cancer risk?

    See what I did there?

    As you know, the UN WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer has listed Red Meat as Group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans) and processed meat at Group 1 (causes cancer).

    And everyone is upset. The most common reaction to these listings is to criticize WHO. The least common reaction to these listings is to learn what the listings are, what they mean, what they mean to you, to the meat industry, to cancer research, and all that. Here, I will try to provide some perspective on some of this.

    WHO is probably more likely to list something as cancer causing

    It is probably true that the WHO IARC is somewhat biased, in that they are more likely to attribute possible carcinogenic effects to things than other similar groups. There are many substances and behaviors listed by WHO as possibly or probably cancer causing that are not similarly identified by, for example, the US EPA. This does not mean that WHO IARC is more likely to be wrong. It just means that your reaction to a possible agent being listed by WHO should be to understand this bias, but not to assume you know what the bias means. If every single cancer-watching agencies was biased in one direction, we’d have a problem. If all cancer-watching agencies always drew the same exact conclusions form the disparate research, we’d have a conspiracy. If the range of cancer-watching agencies produces a reasonable range of decisions, we’d have real life.

    Here is something you should keep in mind when comparing across agencies. Many US federal agencies are led and staffed by industry experts. Where do you get industry experts? From the industries these agencies regulate. Where did the industries get them? They got them from PhD schools, where they quite possibly paid for their higher education with grants from the industry and worked in labs paid for in part by those industries, while working on grants from the industry. This is likely more a thing in the US than in other countries that contribute expertise and do research. It is also true that US regulatory agencies are notably biased in the opposite direction of WHO.

    US regulatory agencies will be staffed by well meaning well trained people who know a lot about how the industry works. That is a good thing. US regulatory agencies will be staffed by people who owe their careers to the industry, and are likely to have warm fuzzy feelings about the industry. That is likely to lead to some bias.

    On the other hand, in other parts of the world, wooish thinking seems to permeate science and governmental agencies more easily. If you look at the research and regulations, related to EMF risks (like power lines and cell phones and such) you’ll see a gradient where some areas of Europe have both evidence (from research) suggesting EMF-health risks and regulations related to this, and other areas of Europe where the evidence shows now risk, to the US where we by and large don’t regulate EMF using these risks as factors. A sensible view of the research tells us that EMF does not have the alleged health risks.

    The reason this is important is that WHO is an international body, so we are going to see a range of industry-fuzzy vs. woo-fuzzy fringes surrounding a hopefully larger and sensible scientifically oriented core. This is also important because of this: if every regulatory or research agency or institution in the world really were funded by the industries they study, and no other research was done by anybody, problems will arise. So go ahead and be annoyed at WHO, but also appreciate this relationship.

    It is not about how bad the cancer risk is

    As a substance or behavior moves from Group 3, through Group 2B and 2A, to Group 1, this does not mean that it is thought to be increasingly cancer-causing. What it means is that the certainty that the substance or behavior cases cancer, no matter how small the effect, has increased. A given agent may increase the risk of a certain kind of cancer by 50%, which sounds bad, but the original probability of cancer being caused by that agent may be tiny. So, in effect, a tiny risk has been increased to a tiny risk. According to WHO, “The classifications reflect the strength of the scientific evidence as to whether an agent causes cancer in humans but do not reflect how strong the effect is on the risk of developing cancer.”

    This is not about your bacon

    I find it amusing that the Internet Reaction to these listings is so widespread and negative, even angry, and at the same time so poorly informed. This is amusing because we are just coming off a way over the top Bacon Worship phase.

    I stopped eating bacon about four months ago. Do you want to know why? Because of all the pictures of bacon, excessive bacon, things made out of bacon, bacon being fetishized and revered like it was a god or something, on Facebook and elsewhere. I got tired of bacon. I was reminded of a friend’s comment. He was raised in a Kosher household. He told me, “I don’t have any food taboos, I don’t keep kosher. But if I walk into a house where someone is cooking ham, I want to throw up.”

    (OK, I did have a BLT the other day. But it was hard.)

    The point is, do think about the nature and cause of your reaction, if you are having a hissy fit about WHO and meats. Are you objecting to the WHO IARC criteria, which you’ve carefully studied and understand, or are you simply being sensitive about your stupid bacon fetish? Think about it.

    Some food research is probably inherently wrong

    I just want to throw this in. If you feed human food, especially cooked food, especially food not made of raw grains, to rats and mice, they might get sick, while a human being fed the same things won’t. Why? Because humans invented cooking possibly as long as two million years ago, and have adapted to cooked foods which seem to cause nasty problems for some lab animals. And humans and their ancestors have always eaten at least some meat. And we are not rodent granivores. So, I don’t know how much animal evidence is being used to change the groups for meat and processed meat, but I personally prefer to disregard rodent data on human diet. It seems to be almost always misleading. Just sayin’

    IARC Groups

    Just so you know, here are the IARD Groups

    Group 1: The agent is carcinogenic to humans. This category is used when there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. In other words, there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer. The evaluation is usually based on epidemiological studies showing development of cancer in exposed humans. Agents can also be classified in Group 1 based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals supported by strong evidence in exposed humans that the agent has effects that are important for cancer development.

    Group 2 This category includes agents with a range of evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and in experimental animals. At one extreme are agents with positive but not conclusive evidence in humans. At the other extreme are agents for which evidence in humans is not available but for which there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. There are two subcategories, indicating different levels of evidence.

    Group 2A: The agent is probably carcinogenic to humans. This category is used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. Limited evidence means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations (technically termed chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out.

    Group 2B: The agent is possibly carcinogenic to humans. This category is used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and less than sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. It may also be used when the evidence of carcinogenicity in humans does not permit a conclusion to be drawn (referred to as “inadequate” evidence) but there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.

    Group 3: The agent is not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans. This category is used most commonly when the evidence of carcinogenicity is inadequate in humans and inadequate or limited in experimental animals. Limited evidence in experimental animals means that the available information suggests a carcinogenic effect but is not conclusive.

    Group 4: The agent is probably not carcinogenic to humans. This category is used when there is evidence suggesting lack of carcinogenicity in humans and in experimental animals.

    Rethinking Pandemics At Several Levels

    Here’s a question for you: Historical records show that another pandemic will occur, but no one knows when. How do we create a mind shift among world leaders and people in general to start planning for the next one now?

    This question is being posed in connection with the series premiere of National Geographic’s “Fighting Pandemics” (November 1 at 9 pm ET on National Geographic Channel). The question is about pandemics, but the inspiration for the series, and the question, is the recent ebola pandemic in West Africa. I have a few thoughts, and I’ve been thinking about Ebola for a long time.

    My first two encounters with Ebola might not have been encounters with Ebola, but might have been.

    I was doing archaeology in a remote part of the Congo, not far from some of the earlier known outbreaks, in a region where later outbreaks occurred as well. In researching abandoned villages, one of which I partially excavated, I found out that there were settlements that had been struck with a terrible disease that killed many of the residents and made many others very ill. These events, of the previous decade or two, were so tragic and traumatic that those village sites were abandoned, and everyone I talked to claimed that they would never use those village sites again, even though re-occupation of villages previously abandoned as part of the swidden agricultural system was common. Ebola? Maybe.

    Around the same time I was reading through a 1950s vintage travel guide to Uganda and the Belgian Congo, owned by my then father-in-law, Neil Tappen. Neil and his wife, Ardith, had worked there in the early 1960s, where Neil produced the first comprehensive survey of the rich primate fauna. They had acquired the book used, so they could not explain the marginal notes added by a previous owner, tallying the death rates of some group or another, with a mortality rate of about 60%. Ebola? Maybe.

    If I had told those stories to an Ebola expert five years ago, I’d probably be told this was unlikely to have been that particular disease because it wasn’t around then. Now, we might be thinking Ebola has a longer history in the region. That is one of the many ways in which Ebola is being re-conceived in light of both the experience of the Ebola pandemic, and research spurred by that horrible chapter in West African history.

    This and other events were enough to spark a long term interest in Ebola, and years ago I was able to contribute a couple of ideas to help in the hunt for a natural non-human reservoir. That was when fruit bats were first being given a hard look, and today, they are still suspect.

    So what about the question at hand?

    The first thing that comes to my mind is how do we put in place the resources needed to come immediately up to speed when a new pandemic seems to be starting. This would include monitoring in order to get on top of the problem as quickly as possible, infrastructure to transport good and people where they need to be, trained personnel to take on the various on the ground roles needed to isolate and treat patients and stop the spread of the disease.

    However, these things are both obvious and outside my area of expertise. I’m pretty sure there are people at the UN’s WHO, the CDC, and other major health related organizations, thinking about these things.

    But there is another aspect of preparation that I think is important. This is the way in which we misconceive Ebola or other diseases, because of a combination of incorrect thinking (about diseases), lack of information, and lack of experience. These misconceptions are usually found among the general public, and result from simply not knowing the science. But sometimes they arise among the medical researchers themselves, and result from not having enough research done, and not having enough experience with a disease.

    For example, during the Ebola pandemic, many people were on the edge of panic because they somehow knew that it was only a matter of time before Ebola became fully airborne, like horrid diseases seem to do rather quickly in their fictional form, in novels, in movies, or on TV. In fact, Ebola is highly unlikely to become easily transmitted by air for reasons I go in to here.

    That is an example of uninformed but concerned non-experts getting it wrong. But, the “airborne” nature of of Ebola, or lack thereof, is actually less than perfectly understood by many in the health business. For example, we often think of Influenza as an airborne disease because it can be spread by coughing and sneezing. However, this common disease is probably almost never spread that way. Rather, it is spread by physical contact, with bodily fluids (which may have been coughed or sneezed at the start) from the nose or mouth going to the hand, then to another person’s hand, then to the recipient’s nose or mouth, possibly with some intervening step such as an object handled by the patient. So, while many may be concerned that Ebola could turn into something like the flu, if it did that, it still would not be especially airborne. If you want to look at an airborne disease, check out measles, which can apparently travel down the hall from one patient examining room to another, through the air, resulting in a new infection.

    It turns out that the categorization of modes of spread has been revised now and then and some feel that further revision would be appropriate, or at least, that everyone should be using a more nuanced and detailed method of describing how diseases can spread. A disease can spread through the air, in a sense, but not be truly airborne. But the distinction is critically important in dealing with a pandemic situation, or even a minor outbreak.

    Dr. Ian Crozier
    From the New York Times (May 7, 2015):
    When Dr. Ian Crozier was released from Emory University Hospital in October after a long, brutal fight with Ebola that nearly ended his life, his medical team thought he was cured. But less than two months later, he was back at the hospital with fading sight, intense pain and soaring pressure in his left eye.
    Test results were chilling: The inside of Dr. Crozier’s eye was teeming with Ebola.
    The accepted belief at the start of the Ebola pandemic was that Ebola would not persist in a survivor beyond a certain number of days, so post-infection quarantine periods needed to be just so long. Even then, however, it was known that Ebola could persist in the sperm of infected males for a much longer period. This should have been a clue. By the end of the pandemic, it was understood that Ebola could actually persist in an infected individual for a much longer time. Long enough, perhaps, to attribute an outbreak to a person who had harbored the disease rather than a novel infection from its wild reservoir. This is a significant finding that not only changes how we address quarantine, but also, how we ask questions about the wild reservoir.

    A third area in which individuals making wrong assumptions can negatively impact an effort to address a new pandemic is in the locally variable beliefs about where infections come from, along side various mortuary practices that may be important to someone’s religion or belief system, but that enhance spread of the disease. I can not honestly characterize this set of local beliefs because, as an anthropologist who has worked in the Ebola region, I can tell you that belief systems are extremely variable there, with many different systems overlapping in space, within individual villages, and that even within the context of households or families, there is a great deal of individual variation.

    I have known families where five or six people living together had three or four entirely different sets of beliefs about important (and unimportant) things. You know this too. Does everyone at a major family gathering, or a get together at work or in your community, share all their basic beliefs? That is highly unlikely. Yet we tend to see people living in other lands, more often than not in developing regions, as being far more homogeneous than they really are. Then, when someone points out a belief system interfering with a scientifically based endeavor (such as a major public health disaster), the assumption is that this is a widespread, intractable, universal problem. There is, though, more diversity than that around your Thanksgiving table and in a typical West or Central African village.

    Sometimes these diverse beliefs emerge simply because different “tribal” groups all live near each other and traditional beliefs get thrown together when people, and this is very common, marry across those relatively artificial boundaries. But the most dramatic divergences in beliefs have to do with local reaction to systems, technologies, and practices, that come from the outside. This can be something simple like the best way to restore life to a nearly dead battery you were hoping to use in a radio, something more important like the best way to catch fish or wild game given the availability of key western goods like fishhooks and wire, to somewhat more bizarre arguments (in more remote areas) about what really is in those cans of foodstuffs that sometimes trickle in from Western sources.

    When a “traditional” population sticks firmly to their beliefs even though it harms them, that’s a story and it may get reported in the New York Times. We saw reports like that during the Ebola pandemic, reports about people refusing to go to clinics because they believed something about Ebola that simply wasn’t true. But, it is also possible for people to put aside their traditional beliefs and accept new knowledge, and change their minds. In my experience, this is the much more common result of interaction between traditional indigenous thinking and intrusive Western thinking. But those stories, where people learn new stuff, change their minds, and change their practices, usually don’t make news. So, our Western conception of the West African peoples who were afflicted with this pandemic is that a huge problem arises from folks sticking to their old and incorrect folklore. Maybe that is true at times, but I strongly suspect that this aspect of the problem was way overplayed by the press.

    So, here is what we have to do, aside from all that logistical planning (and fund raising) noted above.

    More research. After many smaller outbreaks of Ebola over many years, the scientific and medical community was left with a number of important misconceptions about Ebola that might have been better known had there been more prior research. This must be assumed to be true of any disease that has pandemic potential but that has not developed to such a level so far. There needs to be a well funded, ongoing, international research program addressing emerging diseases that is proactive, addresses whatever research questions come along in good scientific tradition, as pure research rather than as a reaction to untoward events.

    More education of the general public. Part of the problem in addressing a pandemic is the inappropriate response, often time and resource wasting, of the press and the public. This happens because the basic, and often rather simple, science needs to be taught fresh to reporters and those who consume the news each time something like this happens. After a decade and a half of major news agencies removing science bureaus, and the spread of anti-science sentiment largely for political reasons, we are paying a cost. If you watched any of the CDD or state health department press conferences at the time Ebola cases were popping up in the US, you will remember the difficulty officials and medical experts had in explaining the science to the reporters, and the often breathless and, frankly, foolish way many reporters were acting at those events. Those events were hardly remarked upon at the time, but the need to explain basic stuff to the reporters, and their poor level of preparation to understand these things, was shameful. But it is also fixable.

    More education on the ground in areas that may be affected. Pandemics of this type may be thought of as more likely to emerge in tropical areas, but in fact, they can emerge elsewhere as well. Part of public health education should be to address proper public, community, family, and personal response to an infectious disease crisis, balancing between urgency and sensibility, to avoid undue panic or inappropriate responses when something does happen.

    It is especially important that populations in regions that may be affected by pandemics can prepare by laying a groundwork of education and new new thinking about what these diseases are and how to spot them and cope with them.

    Finally, Ebola is not the only pandemic causing horrid disease in the tropics, so the question at hand needs to be addressed generally. Moist equatorial Africa is not the only region where this sort of pandemic can develop. And, with climate change, the warmer regions of the world, where certain kinds of diseases seem to do better, are getting larger.