Author Archives: Roger Frost

Forget Bribery and Blackmail, Job Offers Are the Real Corruption in Politics

Mother Jones

This will obviously not come as a shock to anyone, but Suzanne Dovi, a public policy professor at the University of Arizona, puts together a few interesting factlets about government corruption in an op-ed today:

Political scientist Adolfo Santos has found that public officials who have plans to become lobbyists act differently while in office from their colleagues who don’t. Interestingly, they are more successful at passing the bills they introduce than officials who don’t go on to be lobbyists. Does this behavior reflect their desire to please their potential future employer or something else? We can’t tell. What we do know is that public officials who are no longer thinking about reelection are freed from the sanctioning power of constituents.

….One report found that congressional members, on average, get a 1,452% raise when they become lobbyists….Interestingly, according to one study, former staff members can generate more revenue (and earn higher salaries) than former members of Congress.

Dovi recommends that we increase the mandatory waiting period before government officials and staffers can become lobbyists. Instead of being required to wait two years after they leave their jobs, she suggests six. “A six-year wait would significantly weaken their connections and diminish their earning power as lobbyists. And that would reduce the temptation to treat public service as a trial job period, acting on behalf of a future boss rather than the constituents.”

This, of course, is why it will never happen. But it’s probably not a bad idea.

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Forget Bribery and Blackmail, Job Offers Are the Real Corruption in Politics

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Will Colbert Use "The Late Show" To Save the World?

Mother Jones

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Jumping from his niche cable show on Comedy Central to a plum CBS slot will roughly triple Stephen Colbert’s national television audience. So when he takes over David Letterman’s late night show next year, we at Climate Desk be tracking one thing in particular with great interest: Will he bring his astute political satire about global warming to an even bigger audience?

None of the current late night barons—Kimmel, Fallon, Ferguson among them—are especially notable for speaking out about climate change, though they occasionally work it into the odd monologue or guest appearance. Colbert is different. In his role as right-wing Satirist-in-Chief, Colbert has regularly skewered climate deniers by pretending to be one of them. One of my favorites is this takedown of Fox and Friends (a frequent target of the show), whose hosts had accused Nickelodeon of pushing a sinister warmist agenda…via SpongeBob Square Pants:

The Colbert Report
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And this year, he nailed Donald Trump:

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But Colbert has not just mercilessly parodied the attacks on climate science, he has also delved into some of the more complex aspects of climate adaptation, including geoengineering. During an interview last year, Harvard University environmental scientist David Keith presented the case for pouring out sulfuric acid into the atmosphere to temporarily ameliorate the effects of warming. “It would be a totally imperfect technical fix,” Keith said. “It would have risks. It wouldn’t get us out of the long-run need to stop polluting. But it might actually save people and be useful.”

But perhaps his best—most sobering, most blistering, most poignant—take on the subject was during this segment from January 2013, where he lampooned an emerging trend of commentators throwing up their hands in faux despair, and resigning themselves to the fate of a warming world. (In this case, he’s going after Erick Erickson, who worked for CNN at the time):

COLBERT: Sure, I know: America beat Tojo, we crushed Hitler, we put a man on the moon, but incrementally reducing CO2 emissions? That sounds like a lot of work. And how can fight an enemy we can’t see? I mean, get out of here, get, get out of here, carbon! Swats air. Did I hit it? I don’t know. So it’s high-time we stop trying to solve the problem and resign ourselves to each day getting worse. Because ladies and gentlemen, when Erick Erickson says “get used to it”, he means get used to city-swallowing storms, mass extinctions, deadly heat waves, crippling floods, and droughts that make a desert out of Oklahoma. And, that’s just how it is now. Our problems are just too big to cure. So join me and Erick. Give up. Crawl into bed with a cheesecake and wait for death. And now, sure, the only thing worse than global warming itself might be knowing you’re destroying the planet, and doing nothing, but if guys like me and Erick have our way, you’d better get used to it.

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Will Colbert Use "The Late Show" To Save the World?

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Europe’s Space Agency Is Going to Harpoon a Comet And Ride It Into the Sun

Rosetta eyeing the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Photo: ESA

The European Space Agency is gearing up to do its best Captain Ahab. For nine years the ESA’s Rosetta probe has been careening through the solar system, inching closer to its target. Rosetta swung by Mars and the Earth, using the planets’ gravitational pulls like a slingshot, picking up speed. In 2011, Rosetta went to sleep—a bid to save energy during its three billion mile endurance race. But in January the probe will wake up and prepare to catch its quarry—the comet Cheryumov-Gerasimenko.

In August, says the BBC, Rosetta will catch up to the comet, which she’ll survey for the next three months. But then, in November, Rosetta’s mission will climax when the spacecraft, quite literally, harpoons the comet.

Using harpoons and screws, says the BBC, the Philae probe, which was carried by Rosetta all this time, will latch itself to the comet. Then, it will hold on as the two head towards the Sun. Or, at least, it will hold on as long as it can.

Comets are relics of the formation of the solar system. Back when the solar system was just a protoplanetary disc orbiting the newly formed Sun, and everything was banging around and clumping together, some of that material went on to become the planets, and some became asteroids and comets. For this reason astronomers have been fascinated with tracking down these celestial fossils.

As this particular comet—a big ball of frozen gas and ice—heats up it will begin to break down, venting gas into space. “How long Philae could withstand any outgassing as the ices heat up on approach to the Sun is anyone’s guess. Will 67-P be a “bucking bronco”?” asks the BBC.

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NASA Wants to Drag an Asteroid Into Orbit Around the Moon


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Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math

Mother Jones

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Everybody knows that our political views can sometimes get in the way of thinking clearly. But perhaps we don’t realize how bad the problem actually is. According to a new psychology paper, our political passions can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills. More specifically, the study finds that people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.

The study, by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues, has an ingenious design. At the outset, 1,111 study participants were asked about their political views and also asked a series of questions designed to gauge their “numeracy,” that is, their mathematical reasoning ability. Participants were then asked to solve a fairly difficult problem that involved interpreting the results of a (fake) scientific study. But here was the trick: While the fake study data that they were supposed to assess remained the same, sometimes the study was described as measuring the effectiveness of a “new cream for treating skin rashes.” But in other cases, the study was described as involving the effectiveness of “a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public.”

The result? Survey respondents performed wildly differently on what was in essence the same basic problem, simply depending upon whether they had been told that it involved guns or whether they had been told that it involved a new skin cream. What’s more, it turns out that highly numerate liberals and conservatives were even more—not less—susceptible to letting politics skew their reasoning than were those with less mathematical ability.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves—to fully grasp the Enlightenment-destroying nature of these results, we first need to explore the tricky problem that the study presented in a little bit more detail.

Let’s start with the “skin cream” version of this brain twister. You can peruse the image below to see exactly what research subjects read (and try out your own skill at solving it), or skip on for a brief explanation:

Full text of one version of the study’s “skin cream” problem. (Click here to enlarge.) Dan Kahan

As you can see above, the survey respondents were presented with a fictive study purporting to assess the effectiveness of a new skin cream, and informed at the outset that “new treatments often work but sometimes make rashes worse,” and that “even when treatments don’t work, skin rashes sometimes get better and sometimes get worse on their own.” They were then presented with a table of experimental results, and asked whether the data showed that the new skin cream “is likely to make the skin condition better or worse.”

So do the data suggest that the skin cream works? The correct answer in the scenario above is actually that patients who used the skin cream were “more likely to get worse than those who didn’t.” That’s because the ratio of those who saw their rash improve to those whose rash got worse is roughly 3:1 in the “skin cream” group, but roughly 5:1 in the control group—which means that if you want your rash to get better, you are better off not using the skin cream at all. (For half of study subjects asked to solve the skin cream problem, the data were reversed and presented in such a way that they did actually suggest that the skin cream works.)

This is no easy problem for most people to solve: Across all conditions of the study, 59 percent of respondents got the answer wrong. That is, in significant part, because trying to intuit the right answer by quickly comparing two numbers will lead you astray; you have to take the time to compute the ratios.

Not surprisingly, Kahan’s study found that the more numerate you are, the more likely you are to get the answer to this “skin cream” problem right. Moreover, it found no substantial difference between highly numerate Democrats and highly numerate Republicans in this regard. The better members of both political groups were at math, the better they were at solving the skin cream problem.

But now take the same basic study design and data, and simply label it differently. Rather than reading about a skin cream study, half of Kahan’s research subjects were asked to determine the effectiveness of laws “banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public.” Accordingly, these respondents were presented not with data about rashes and whether they got better or worse, but rather with data about cities that had or hadn’t passed concealed carry bans, and whether crime in these cities had or had not decreased.

Overall, then, study respondents were presented with one of four possible scenarios, depicted below with the correct answer in bold:

The four problem scenarios from the study (each respondent received just one of these). Dan Kahan

So how did people fare on the handgun version of the problem? They performed quite differently than on the skin cream version, and strong political patterns emerged in the results—especially among people who are good at mathematical reasoning. Most strikingly, highly numerate liberal Democrats did almost perfectly when the right answer was that the concealed weapons ban does indeed work to decrease crime (version C of the experiment)—an outcome that favors their pro-gun-control predilections. But they did much worse when the correct answer was that crime increases in cities that enact the ban (version D of the experiment).

The opposite was true for highly numerate conservative Republicans: They did just great when the right answer was that the ban didn’t work (version D), but poorly when the right answer was that it did (version C).

Here are the results overall, comparing subjects’ performances on the “skin cream” versions of the problem (above) and the “gun ban” versions of the problem (below), and relating this performance to their political affiliations and numeracy scores:

Full study results comparing subjects’ performance on the skin cream problem with their performance on the gun ban problem. Vertical axes plot response accuracy Horizontal axes show mathematical reasoning ability. Dan Kahan

For study author Kahan, these results are a fairly strong refutation of what is called the “deficit model” in the field of science and technology studies—the idea that if people just had more knowledge, or more reasoning ability, then they would be better able to come to consensus with scientists and experts on issues like climate change, evolution, the safety of vaccines, and pretty much anything else involving science or data (for instance, whether concealed weapons bans work). Kahan’s data suggest the opposite—that political biases skew our reasoning abilities, and this problem seems to be worse for people with advanced capacities like scientific literacy and numeracy. “If the people who have the greatest capacities are the ones most prone to this, that’s reason to believe that the problem isn’t some kind of deficit in comprehension,” Kahan explained in an interview.

So what are smart, numerate liberals and conservatives actually doing in the gun control version of the study, leading them to give such disparate answers? It’s kind of tricky, but here’s what Kahan thinks is happening.

Our first instinct, in all versions of the study, is to leap instinctively to the wrong conclusion. If you just compare which number is bigger in the first column, for instance, you’ll be quickly led astray. But more numerate people, when they sense an apparently wrong answer that offends their political sensibilities, are both motivated and equipped to dig deeper, think harder, and even start performing some calculations—which in this case would have led to a more accurate response.

“If the wrong answer is contrary to their ideological positions, we hypothesize that that is going to create the incentive to scrutinize that information and figure out another way to understand it,” says Kahan. In other words, more numerate people perform better when identifying study results that support their views—but may have a big blind spot when it comes to identifying results that undermine those views.

What’s happening when highly numerate liberals and conservatives actually get it wrong? Either they’re intuiting an incorrect answer that is politically convenient and feels right to them, leading them to inquire no further—or else they’re stopping to calculate the correct answer, but then refusing to accept it and coming up with some elaborate reason why 1 + 1 doesn’t equal 2 in this particular instance. (Kahan suspects it’s mostly the former, rather than the latter.)

The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume famously described reason as a “slave of the passions.” Today’s political scientists and political psychologists, like Kahan, are now affirming Hume’s statement with reams of new data. This new study is just one out of many in this respect; but it provides perhaps the most striking demonstration yet of just how motivated, just how biased, reasoning can be—especially about politics.

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Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math

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Arctic methane escape could cost $60 trillion

Arctic methane escape could cost $60 trillion


Beware of melting.

An almighty belch is building up deep in the belly of the Arctic, and it’s going to cost the world a pretty penny when it rips.

As the Arctic continues to melt, a 50-gigatonne reservoir of methane trapped in permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea will be released — perhaps steadily over five decades or perhaps during one sudden grandfatherly burp — and that will cause an estimated $37 trillion to $60 trillion worth of damage. So say researchers in a commentary published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas. “Higher methane concentrations in the atmosphere will accelerate global warming and hasten local changes in the Arctic, speeding up sea-ice retreat, reducing the reflection of solar energy and accelerating the melting of the Greenland ice sheet,” the researchers write. “The ramifications will be felt far from the poles.”

It’s not easy to conceptualize such large dollar values, but look at it this way: The world’s gross domestic product in 2012 was estimated at about $70 trillion.

Researchers from Erasmus University Rotterdam and the University of Cambridge estimated the financial impacts of the methane release by running thousands of simulations on a modeling tool that estimates social costs of climatic change. From the Nature article:

The economic consequences will be distributed around the globe, but the modelling shows that about 80% of them will occur in the poorer economies of Africa, Asia and South America. The extra methane magnifies flooding of low-lying areas, extreme heat stress, droughts and storms.

The full impacts of a warming Arctic, including, for example, ocean acidification and altered ocean and atmospheric circulation, will be much greater than our cost estimate for methane release alone.

To find out the actual cost, better models are needed to incorporate feedbacks that are not included in [our model], such as linking the extent of Arctic ice to increases in Arctic mean temperature, global sea-level rise and ocean acidification, as well as including estimates of the economic costs and benefits of shipping. Oil-and-gas development in the Arctic should also, for example, take into account the impacts of black carbon, which absorbs solar radiation and speeds up ice melt, from shipping and gas flaring.

Antacid, anybody?

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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Unitarians, Gun Lovers, and Pot Advocates Sue the NSA Over Spying Program

Mother Jones

A coalition of odd bedfellows—including Greenpeace, CalGuns Foundation, the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws—are suing the National Security Agency (NSA) over its alleged “illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet surveillance.” The groups, which are being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are bringing the suit in the wake of revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the secret US spy court forced Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint to hand over customer records to the feds.

“When the government has access to your communications records for a period of up to five years, it creates a chilling effect on your willingness to participate in political discourse and join political groups,” Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a press call on Tuesday. EFF also sued the NSA in 2008 over the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program—a case that has yet to be resolved.

The plaintiffs allege that through the NSA’s tracking program, “defendants…continue to collect, acquire, and retain, bulk communications information of telephone calls made and received by plaintiffs, their members and staffs. This information is otherwise private.” They also claim that the collection of this information was “neither relevant to an existing authorized criminal investigation, nor to an existing authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism.” The charges are being brought as violations to the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments, among other laws.

The Director of National Intelligence, Keith Alexander—who is also listed on the suit—testified last month that the NSA’s surveillance program has helped stopped more than 50 terror plots since 9/11. The NSA maintains that the only information that has been collected through phone surveillance is basic information called metadata, which includes information like which numbers made and received a call, when it took place, and how long it lasted.

At the call on Tuesday, representatives for the groups said that even though the coalition comes from across the political spectrum, they have one big thing in common: They feel their First Amendment rights are being squashed. Reverend Rick Hoyt from the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles noted that the church played an important role in fighting hysteria during the McCarthy years, and he sees this as more of the same: “We’re very aware how organizations can be affected by government surveillance…we want to make sure our current church members feel they have the right to associate with this church.” Gene Hoffman, chairman of The Calguns Foundation, which fights gun control laws, said his members are “definitely” hesitant about calling his organization because of surveillance concerns. “It’s common to have caller-ID block for our members even before this came out.”

Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a civil rights organization that fights to end racial profiling, notes, “A lot of our members have had concerns about these kinds of activities happening for a long time, they’ve been dismissed for years by the broader public as paranoia… The people who suspected they were being watched, until now, couldn’t prove it.”


Unitarians, Gun Lovers, and Pot Advocates Sue the NSA Over Spying Program

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Naming Our Nameless, Ongoing War

Mother Jones

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This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

For well over a decade now the United States has been “a nation at war.” Does that war have a name?

It did at the outset. After 9/11, George W. Bush’s administration wasted no time in announcing that the US was engaged in a Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT. With few dissenters, the media quickly embraced the term. The GWOT promised to be a gargantuan, transformative enterprise. The conflict begun on 9/11 would define the age. In neoconservative circles, it was known as World War IV.

Upon succeeding to the presidency in 2009, however, Barack Obama without fanfare junked Bush’s formulation (as he did again in a speech at the National Defense University last week). Yet if the appellation went away, the conflict itself, shorn of identifying marks, continued.

Does it matter that ours has become and remains a nameless war? Very much so.

Names bestow meaning. When it comes to war, a name attached to a date can shape our understanding of what the conflict was all about. To specify when a war began and when it ended is to privilege certain explanations of its significance while discrediting others. Let me provide a few illustrations.

With rare exceptions, Americans today characterize the horrendous fraternal bloodletting of 1861-1865 as the Civil War. Yet not many decades ago, diehard supporters of the Lost Cause insisted on referring to that conflict as the War Between the States or the War for Southern Independence (or even the War of Northern Aggression). The South may have gone down in defeat, but the purposes for which Southerners had fought—preserving a distinctive way of life and the principle of states’ rights—had been worthy, even noble. So at least they professed to believe, with their preferred names for the war reflecting that belief.

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Naming Our Nameless, Ongoing War

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Corn on MSNBC: Obama Speech Grapples with Security and Civil Liberties Issues

Mother Jones

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Wednesday, US attorney general Eric Holder acknowledged that four Americans have been killed in drone strikes, though only one was targeted. Today, the president spoke on the future of counterterrorism in the US. DC bureau chief David Corn discusses the speech with John Podesta, president of Center for American Progress, and host Chris Matthews on MSNBC‘s Hardball:

Corn also analyzed the speech with The Grio‘s Joy Reid on MSNBC‘s Martin Bashir:

David Corn is Mother Jones’ Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He’s also on Twitter.

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Corn on MSNBC: Obama Speech Grapples with Security and Civil Liberties Issues

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Just in time for summer: Budget cuts force Forest Service to skimp on firefighters, trucks

Just in time for summer: Budget cuts force Forest Service to skimp on firefighters, trucks

ShutterstockLet it burn, says the Tea Party.

Tea Partiers who watched gleefully as the sequester slashed government spending are welcome to douse forest fires near their homes with teapots full of Earl Grey this summer. Across-the-board budget cuts mean federal wildfire fighting efforts could be overwhelmed.

The U.S. Forest Service will hire 500 fewer firefighters this year and 50 fewer fire engines will be available than previously expected, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this week. The Interior Department also plans to pare back its firefighting crews.

Susie Cagle

The seasonal firefighting jobs are going up in smoke because of Congress’s inability to come up with a national spending plan. President Obama called for spending cuts and tax increases to help balance the budget, but Republicans would have none of the latter.

Limited personnel and equipment will be prioritized to the parched West and Southwest. That will leave the East Coast vulnerable, though the Forest Service says it will do what it can to shift the spending cuts to other places if needed.

From the L.A. Times:

The Forest Service hires firefighters in spring and retains them through fall, Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s national director of fire and aviation management, said in an interview Monday. Last year, when 9.3 million acres burned in the United States, the Forest Service hired 10,500 firefighters. The Interior Department fielded another 2,500. …

The Forest Service was required to cut $50 million from a fire preparedness fund under across-the-board budget cuts implemented this year, which affected nearly every government agency.

The Forest Service has a contingency plan that would allow it to hire additional firefighters throughout the fire season, including training new firefighters and potentially bringing in National Guard or members of the military, Harbour said.

In previous years when more firefighters have been needed, the Forest Service has shifted money out of accounts for things such as road maintenance, campgrounds, wildlife and range management programs, Harbour said. He expects the agency will be able to do so again.

“We’re going to keep fighting fire,” he said.

Let’s hope so. The spending cuts are in place because House Republicans weren’t willing to increase taxes on the rich. But those folks will be crying for Smokey Bear when the fires threaten their mansions in the woods.

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who


, posts articles to


, and

blogs about ecology

. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:


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6 Lesser Known World Landmarks (Slideshow)

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Funny Puppy Sneezes on Command (Video)

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6 Lesser Known World Landmarks (Slideshow)

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