Friday, October 20, 2006

Losing it in Prague

The November/December issue of Australian Sky & Telescope magazine reports on “the inside story of Pluto’s demotion”, by Owen Gingerich. But you’ll have to buy the mag because it ain’t available online, except for the following teaser:

When rumours began to spread that I would chair a committee for the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to recommend how to define the word “planet”, I promptly received a visitor with an emotional request.

“Don’t demote Pluto,” he pleaded. “Little children love Pluto. They’ll be heartbroken if you tell them Pluto isn’t a planet.”

The next day another caller came by. “Pluto would never have been considered a planet if astronomers had realised, when it was discovered in 1930, that it’s smaller and less massive than the Moon,” he said. “Don’t make the same scientific mistake again.”

I quickly realised that our committee would be treading through a minefield of contrary opinions held by passionate stakeholders. Little did I suspect how that passion would play out!

Also due for publication in the current edition is young Rory Burg’s beautiful Ode to Pluto.

If I can get hold of a copy, I may post more on these and other items.

Related Previous Post
211th planetish object discovered

Goat Friday

Healing Hooves

The City of Seattle isn’t kidding about fighting potential brush fires – they’re fighting back with a herd of goats. Read on...

Previous Goat Friday
And Goats Might Fly

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

IBC and Lancet

As noted by Tims Blair and Dunlop, the Iraq Body Count project has issued a response to Lancet/Johns Hopkins 2006. Both Tims are agreed that it’s a “must-read”, although obviously for different reasons.

It is indeed an interesting read, but seems rather short on substantive criticism of the survey and methodology. Basically IBC’s problem with Lancet is that the figures are too bloody high, carrying implications that IBC finds difficult to accept.

Just looking at one particular aspect, the IBC response notes that the Lancet/Johns Hopkins findings imply “incompetence and/or fraud on a truly massive scale by Iraqi officials in hospitals and ministries.”

Well, this seems just a bit hysterical. As noted elsewhere, the Iraqi Health Ministry released in June a war death toll of 50,000. However, the LA Times noted that, “Many more Iraqis are believed to have been killed but not counted because of serious lapses in recording deaths in the chaotic first year after the invasion, when there was no functioning Iraqi government, and continued spotty reporting nationwide since.”

So, why impute incompetence and/or fraud when the country, in particular its health system, was and continues to be a bloody shambles?

The whole point of doing a cluster survey, as undertaken by the Johns Hopkins people, was to circumvent that shattered state apparatus, and attempt to gauge excess mortality directly from the population.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

False-but-true, says Hitchens

In a recent piece in Slate, Christopher Hitchens seems to come out as undecided about the accuracy of Lancet/Johns Hopkins 2006, although the vibe of his article tends to the sceptical.

He does allow, however, that the study kind of gets it right as regards the fact that most deaths in the post-invasion period were not caused by Coalition forces.

The Lancet figures are almost certainly inflated... But there is no reason why they may not come to reflect reality more closely.

Thus, for Hitchens, Lancet/Johns Hopkins 2006 is false-but-true. For him, there’s good reason to doubt the bits he can’t use, but there’s a truthiness about the rest that transcends those bad bits.

By the way, the theme of this piece is about the purported “moral idiocy” of Lancet/Johns Hopkins. Well geez, Hitcho, there’s plenty of that on all sides, thanks very much.


Victory of the Thought-Nannies

Listening to ABC Radio National this morning, I heard Fran Kelly interviewing Mark Scott, managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for him to spruik the ABC’s “overhauled” editorial policy.

A key strategy of this overhaul apparently will be to “signpost” programs in which ABC talking-heads discuss potentially contentious material.

Scott actually raised ABC-TV’s At the Movies, hosted by David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, as an example of programs that would be thus “signposted”.

So, for those unable to discern that statements made by Stratton and Pomeranz – often prefaced with confusing expressions such as “I think that...” and “It seems to me...” – represent anything more than the opinions of the two, the entire program will be “signposted” with a warning to the effect that statements made by Stratton and Pomeranz are nothing more than their own opinions.

This is the idiocy to which we have been led, thanks to the efforts of thought-nannies like Gerard Henderson, Richard Alston, and even the oh-so-clever Tim Blair.

Congratulations, thought-nannies of Australia! Your supreme effort will make Australia an international laughing stock.

For we are to be served by a national broadcaster that will label opinion, much as a pre-school teacher might the objects in a classroom for the benefit of illiterate children.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Clueless in Canberra and Washington (another Lancet lot)

One of the surprising spin-offs from the release of Lancet/Johns Hopkins 2006 is that the US Government has officially announced an updated official Iraqi death toll, which apparently supercedes President Bush’s official estimate in December 2005 of “30,000 more or less”.

The US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, had the following to say regarding the Lancet study, as shown on ABC-TV’s Lateline program on Thursday night:

CASEY: I have not seen the study; that 650,000 number seems way beyond any number that I have seen. I’ve not seen a number higher than 50,000 and so I don’t give that much credibility at all.

REPORTER: The 50,000 number, where did you see that from?

CASEY: I don’t remember, but I have seen it over time.

REPORTER: That ... is that a US military estimate?

CASEY: I don’t remember where I saw it. It’s either from the Iraqi Government or us, but I don’t remember precisely.

Perhaps I can help the General’s recollection by suggesting the source of the 50,000 figure is probably a June 2006 publication by the Iraqi Health Ministry, reported in the Los Angeles Times (reproduced here).

Note that if both President Bush was correct last December, and the Iraqi Health Ministry was correct in June, then an additional 20,000 deaths in the intervening six months represents well over 3,000 additional deaths per month. One wonders if General Casey would “give that much credibility at all”.

However, the LA Times noted that: “Many more Iraqis are believed to have been killed but not counted because of serious lapses in recording deaths in the chaotic first year after the invasion, when there was no functioning Iraqi government, and continued spotty reporting nationwide since.”

Thus it appears the Iraqi Health Ministry’s assessment is likely to be way under what the actual toll really is. Poor General Casey... another victim of flawed intel.

President Bush’s estimate in December of 30,000 is commonly thought to be derived from the lower, conservative end of the Iraq Body Count tally at the time, or quite possibly some time earlier. (I say, “commonly thought,” because the White House has steadfastly declined to identify the source of the President’s estimate.)

As IBC counts only deaths reported in media, and as it’s generally accepted that the media under-report civilian deaths, it’s quite likely that the President’s estimate in December significantly understated actual mortality. I personally don’t believe the man did this deliberately, because by now I firmly believe he doesn’t have a clue anyway.

Nor, I believe, does the Australian Prime Minister have a clue. Mr Howard told ABC Radio National’s The World Today program on Thursday:

Well, I don’t believe that John Hopkins research, I don’t. It’s not plausible; it’s not based on anything other than a house-to-house survey. I think that’s absolutely precarious.

It is a … an unbelievably large number and it’s out of whack with most of the other assessments that have been made.

That Mr Howard apparently doesn’t trust house-to-house surveys may come as a shock to some critics of the Lancet/Johns Hopkins studies, who have often cited the UNDP’s Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004 as a superior study that trumps Lancet. The ILCS was, of course, based on a house-to-house survey. Doubtless Mr Howard will soon be in urgent communication with the United Nations Development Programme to assist in correcting their errant ways.

Or admit that he, the Prime Minister, doesn’t have a clue either, just like his good buddy, the President.