Friday, December 30, 2011

645. Cuba: Looking Over the Horizon to 2012

Delegates at the April 2011 Congress of the
Communist Party of Cuba

By Phillip Brenner, Cuba Central News Blast, December 30, 2011 

I returned two weeks ago from my first trip to Cuba in one year.  Though I had only a few days there, what I saw convinced me that 2012 will be a watershed year on the island. While predictions about Cuba are best made with crossed fingers, I'll offer you here a brief glimpse of what may lie just over the horizon.

Hope Returns

One year ago, I could almost taste the air of disappointment which was palpable everywhere.  More than four years after Raúl Castro had assumed the leadership of Cuba from his brother, and after several promises of significant change, there seemed to be very little movement.  Fewer Cubans had applied for small business licenses than government planners had anticipated. Generous grants of free land had not led to an outpouring from the cities to the countryside, so that the program was not solving problems of food supply. The Cubans' apathetic response to these initiatives was one reason Raúl decided not to follow through with his draconian plan to lay off one million people from the government payroll by March 2011, because there were not enough jobs outside of the government to absorb so many unemployed workers.  As a result, the bureaucracy continued to lay mired in inefficiency and corruption.

This December, I found more food in the stores, and what could even be called an upbeat mood. To be sure, tourism increased to over 2.5 million visitors with some improvement in the world economy, and remittances from relatives abroad were up. Cuba's GDP grew more in 2011 than it had in 2010.  But something intangible also had changed. For the first time in many years, I sensed that hope had returned - even among young people. There will be a major Communist Party "Conference" at the end of January - a follow-up to the 6th Party Congress held in April 2011.  There are few details about what will happen at the Party Conference, but there was a nearly unanimous anticipation among people with whom I spoke - from taxi drivers, to students, academics, retired workers, and former and current government officials -- that the Party Conference would speed up necessary change on the island.

Party Conference

Prior to the April 2011 Party Congress, Cubans engaged in months of debate over more than 200 proposed lineamientos or guidelines for economic and social policy that the Congress would consider (see CDA's 2011 study,  Cuba's New Resolve: Economic Reform and its Implications for U.S. Policy, written by Collin Laverty). While the countrywide discussions led to modifications of nearly all the lineamientos, the guidelines remained fairly general. The Congress apparently also left some key decisions unresolved. This situation produced the need for a procedure that had not been used before, a Party Conference.

Opening on January 28, 2012, the First Party Conference formally will take up 97 items listed in its Basic Document.  But during my recent visit, I was encouraged to monitor how the Conference handles three issues listed in the introduction which could be centrally important to the changes occurring in Cuba:
1.              "Assuring the promotion of women, blacks, mestizos, and young people to positions of major responsibility": This could result in the retirement of some elderly party leaders and the elevation of a new generation to the Politburo and even the Council of Ministers.
2.             "The current challenges demand open channels for legitimate individual and collective aspirations; and to face prejudices and discrimination of all kinds that persist within the bosom of the society": The context for this objective is a surrounding list of criticisms about the party that suggest it has become too bureaucratic, too concerned about upholding "obsolete dogmas and perspectives," and too distant from the daily lives of Cubans.  The implied message: the Party is not currently able to play its appropriate role as a vanguard which can guide the country in confronting its challenges. One possible outcome, therefore, may be a significant reduction in the size of the Party, so that only those who are the most ideologically well prepared and psychologically fit can be members. This change would relate directly to a third objective.
3.             Revising the "Party's relationship to the Union of Young Communists and the mass organizations": This would propel the process of restructuring  begun in 2009, to rationalize decision making by reducing the authority of the Party over specific government operations, and increasing the responsibility and accountability of government agencies.  By attenuating close ties between the Party and the mass organizations - the Women's Federation, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Small Farmers Association, the Federation of University Students, and the Labor Confederation - the apparent hope is that these organizations will recover some useful function, and actually represent various interests in a kind of pluralistic competition that will also add to the legitimacy of government decisions.
The Conference also is likely to endorse Raúl's campaign against corruption, which he declared on December 23 to be "one of the principal enemies of the Revolution, much more harmful than the subversive and interventionist activities of the U.S. government...". 

In addition, the Cuban president may use the Conference to announce a change in travel regulations - reducing or removing restrictions on access to passports and exit visas - which Cubans were hoping he would have proclaimed on December 23.
However, it is unlikely that the Conference itself will initiate further economic changes. These were rolled out throughout 2011 and are likely to continue throughout 2012. This week, for example, the government announced that it would rent space in state-owned workshops for the private practice of several categories of professionals, including carpenters, locksmiths, and jewelers. In the last year the number of Cubans who obtained licenses to start their own businesses nearly doubled to 338,000, according to an AP story in the Huffington Post.

Political Change

Even before the Party Conference, there has been a significant rejuvenation in the Party leadership. The Western press is fond of noting that the Cuban President is 80 years old, and that he selected as his first vice president a youthful José Ramón Machado Ventura, who is 81.  But the Council of Ministers, which has gained significant power, is made up of 34 people whose median age is 56 and average age is 60.  Contrast that to President Barack Obama's Cabinet, which has an average age of 55, or the U.S. Senate where the median age is 62.

Twenty-five percent of the Council of Ministers are women, and nearly forty percent of the Communist Party's Central Committee's membership is female.  Consider one example. The Ministry of Foreign Relations has only two members on the Central Committee. One is the Minister of Foreign Relations; the other is Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the 50-year old chief of the North American desk.  Internationally respected as a savvy professional, she is a likely future foreign policy leader.  
Perhaps more striking, as Temas Editor Rafael Hernández observed in a November lecture at the Inter-American Dialogue, the average age of the provincial party heads is 44 years. One notable rising star is Mercedes López Acea, the General Secretary of the Communist Party in Havana province.  A 46-year old woman of mixed descent, she was trained as a forest engineer, rose quickly through the party ranks far away from Havana, and now is a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party.

In 2012, political change is likely to be spurred by the grassroots as well as from the center. As the central government devolves more decision making authority and funds to municipal governments, the election campaigns for the municipal assemblies may possibly become more actively contested. Party membership is not a requirement for election. At the same time, there will be wider use of email, and with a fiber optic connection finally working, increased access to the Internet. The operation of a broad band cable had been delayed by the installation of faulty equipment, a rumored result of corruption in ETECSA, Cuba's telecommunications company.

The political role of the Catholic Church also has been growing, along with the government's tacit approval of its activities, and it is likely to continue in 2012.  Church commentaries on Cuba's economic and social changes - published by Havana's archdiocese in Espacio Laical - are often critical, invariably cogent, and widely available. Notably, Raúl Castro linked the Council of State's announcement on December 23 - that the government would be granting amnesty to approximately 2,900 elderly and sick prisoners - to Pope Benedict XVI's planned spring 2012 visit to Cuba.  (Similarly, the release of 52 political prisoners in July 2011 was facilitated by meetings with church officials.)

U.S.-Cuban Relations

Alan P. Gross was not among the 2,900 prisoners released. The U.S. government refuses to take the one step that would enable a discussion about Gross's release even to begin: publicly acknowledging that the USAID sub-contractor violated Cuban laws. As Fulton Armstrong, who recently resigned as a senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, wrote in the Miami Herald on December 26, "When a covert action run by the CIA goes bad and a clandestine officer gets arrested, the U.S. government works up a strategy for negotiating his release. When a covert operator  working for USAID gets arrested, Washington turns up the rhetoric, throws more money at the compromised program, and refuses to talk."

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that there can be no movement on U.S. relations with Cuba until Cuba frees Gross from prison. However, U.S. and Cuban officials have been meeting quietly to discuss several issues, and they are likely to continue doing so in 2012.  These have included periodic migration talks, monthly meetings to maintain peace and order at the Guantanamo Naval Base fence line, and ongoing cooperation between the Cuban and U.S. coast guards and drug enforcement agencies. Significantly, U.S. and Cuban officials met earlier this month at multilateral sessions in the Bahamas, to discuss potential responses to oil spills that might result from drilling in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Florida Straits. Repsol, a Spanish energy firm, is slated to begin off-shore drilling in Cuban territorial waters in mid-February. (The Cuba Central News Blast reported on December 9, and I confirmed during my trip to Havana, that Cuba did attend the Bahamas meeting, though a U.S. State Department press release had omitted Cuba from the list of participating countries.)

Meanwhile, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Controls has continued to issue licenses for educational and humanitarian travel, and the State Department has steadily approved visas for visits by Cuban scholars. Earlier this month, President Obama held fast in threatening to veto the $1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill for FY 2012 (which began on October 1, 2011) if it contained an amendment sponsored by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (Republican-Florida) that would have reinstated severe restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to the island and their remittances to family members. One test of the Obama's resolve will come in May, when the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) holds its International Congress in San Francisco. LASA has been convening outside of the United States since 2004, because the Bush Administration denied visas to all the Cubans scheduled to participate in the 2003 meeting. More than 30 Cuban scholars will be seeking visas for San Francisco.

In any case, the calm in the relationship is unlikely to last much past the New Year's hiatus, as Cuba could well be an issue in the 2012 presidential election. In late November, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gleefully accepted endorsements from Representatives Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican-Florida). No quid pro quo was revealed publicly, but I cannot imagine that they gave their support to Romney without receiving assurances he would take a hard-line position on Cuba. Also in November, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich weighed in on Cuba, baldly declaring in an interview that he was working on a plan "to get the Cuban people to freedom by 2014."

Indeed, the calm is balanced precariously on a razor thin edge. Any number of events in 2012 could bring on new tension. Consider that one year ago Cuba and the United States were well advanced in discussions over a potential joint program to aid Haiti after the devastating Port-au-Prince earthquake. The United States would have supplied equipment and medicine, and Cuba would have supplied medical personnel for the project. But planning collapsed, according to U.S. officials, when former Cuban President Fidel Castro took umbrage at remarks by former U.S. President Bill Clinton ignoring the contribution of Cuban and Latin American doctors in providing relief to Haiti. Cuban officials counter that the project stalled because the United States refused to suspend its covert program to recruit Cuban doctors who are sent abroad.

Since 2006, the U.S. agents have brought more than 1,600 Cuban doctors to the United States with offers of immediate citizenship and support for obtaining a U.S. medical license. "How could we possibly expose our doctors in Haiti to this subversive campaign?" a Cuban official exclaimed to me in an interview. "Why can't the State Department understand how their programs undermine possibilities for cooperation?" he asked rhetorically. The State Department and USAID have nearly $50 million in funding for various programs aimed at provoking the Cuban government in 2012.

International events might also affect the U.S.-Cuban relationship. Turmoil in Venezuela, or an Israeli attack against Iran could well place the United States and Cuba on opposing sides.  President Obama may feel pressure to "punish" Cuba by cutting back on Cuban visas, imposing new restrictions on educational travel, and reinstalling obstacles that increase the difficulty for U.S. suppliers to sell food and medicine to Cuba.

Yet if Respol or other international energy giants strike oil in Cuban waters, the United States may find it has a new calculus in defining its interests vis-à-vis Cuba, and U.S. oil firms may decide it is worth their while to lobby for changes in Cuba policy. Discovering oil "would be a game changer," National Security Archive senior researcher Peter Kornbluh aptly remarked in an interview on December 26.

There is a bravado in Cuba now, as several people told me they no longer pay much attention to the United States. That's not true. I found as much interest as ever in the U.S. election, the U.S. economy, and U.S. baseball.  But it is true that as Cuba moves ahead in 2012, officials will not count on improved relations with the United States in planning their next steps. In September President Obama remarked in a White House interview that "Hopefully, over the next five years, we will see Cuba looking around the world and saying, we need to catch up with history." I can readily believe that President Castro might wish the same awakening for the United States in 2012.

Phillip Brenner is professor of International Relations at the American University.

644. Researchers Make A Deadly Bird Flu Virus Capable of Easy Transmission

By Denise Grady and Donald G. McNeil, The New York Times, December 26, 2011

Ron Fouchier led a team that took one of the most dangerous flu
viruses ever known and made it even more dangerous.
Photo: Dirk-Jan Visser for The New York Times
The young scientist, normally calm and measured, seemed edgy when he stopped by his boss’s office.

“You are not going to believe this one,” he told Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam. “I think we have an airborne H5N1 virus.”

The news, delivered one afternoon last July, was chilling. It meant that Dr. Fouchier’s research group had taken one of the most dangerous flu viruses ever known and made it even more dangerous — by tweaking it genetically to make it more contagious.

What shocked the researchers was how easy it had been, Dr. Fouchier said. Just a few mutations was all it took to make the virus go airborne.

The discovery has led advisers to the United States government, which paid for the research, to urge that the details be kept secret and not published in scientific journals to prevent the work from being replicated by terrorists, hostile governments or rogue scientists.

Journal editors are taking the recommendation seriously, even though they normally resist any form of censorship. Scientists, too, usually insist on their freedom to share information, but fears of terrorism have led some to say this information is too dangerous to share.

Some biosecurity experts have even said that no scientist should have been allowed to create such a deadly germ in the first place, and they warn that not just the blueprints but the virus itself could somehow leak or be stolen from the laboratory.

Dr. Fouchier is cooperating with the request to withhold some data, but reluctantly. He thinks other scientists need the information.

The naturally occurring A(H5N1) virus is quite lethal without genetic tinkering. It already causes an exceptionally high death rate in humans, more than 50 percent. But the virus, a type of bird flu, does not often infect people, and when it does, they almost never transmit it to one another.

If, however, that were to change and bird flu were to develop the ability to spread from person to person, scientists fear that it could cause the deadliest flu pandemic in history.

The experiment in Rotterdam transformed the virus into the supergerm of virologists’ nightmares, enabling it to spread from one animal to another through the air. The work was done in ferrets, which catch flu the same way people do and are considered the best model for studying it.

“This research should not have been done,” said Richard H. Ebright, a chemistry professor and bioweapons expert at Rutgers University who has long opposed such research. He warned that germs that could be used as bioweapons had already been unintentionally released hundreds of times from labs in the United States and predicted that the same thing would happen with the new virus.

“It will inevitably escape, and within a decade,” he said, though he added that security measures like restricting possession of the virus to fewer scientists and fewer laboratories would lower the chances of that happening so soon.

But Dr. Fouchier and many public health experts argue that the experiment had to be done.

If scientists can make the virus more transmissible in the lab, then it can also happen in nature, Dr. Fouchier said.

Knowing that the risk is real should drive countries where the virus is circulating in birds to take urgent steps to eradicate it, he said. And knowing which mutations lead to transmissibility should help scientists all over the world who monitor bird flu to recognize if and when a circulating strain starts to develop pandemic potential.

“There are highly respected virologists who thought until a few years ago that H5N1 could never become airborne between mammals,” Dr. Fouchier said. “I wasn’t convinced. To prove these guys wrong, we needed to make a virus that is transmissible.”

Other virologists differ. Dr. W. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University questioned the need for the research and rejected Dr. Fouchier’s contention that making a virus transmissible in the laboratory proves that it can or will happen in nature. But Richard J. Webby, a virologist at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, said Dr. Fouchier’s research was useful, with the potential to answer major questions about flu viruses, like what makes them transmissible and how some that appear to infect only animals can suddenly invade humans as well.

“I would certainly love to be able to see that information,” Dr. Webby said, explaining that he has a freezer full of bird flu viruses from all over the world. “If I detect a virus in our activities that has some of these changes, it could change the direction of what we do.”

Some scientists dismiss fears of bioterrorism via influenza, because flu viruses would not make practical weapons: they cannot be targeted, and they would also infect whoever deployed them.

Dr. Fouchier said it would be easier to weaponize other germs. Which ones? He would not answer.

“That should tell you something,” he said. “I won’t tell you what I as a virologist would use, but I would publish this work.”

However, some experts argue that appeals to logic are useless.
“You can’t know who might try to re-create H5N1,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

The A(H5N1) bird flu was first recognized in Hong Kong in 1997, when chickens in poultry markets began dying and 18 people fell ill, 6 of them fatally. Hoping to stamp out the virus, the government in Hong Kong destroyed the country’s entire poultry industry — killing more than a million birds — in just a few days. Buddhist monks and nuns in Hong Kong prayed for the souls of the slaughtered chickens, and world health officials praised Hong Kong for averting a potential pandemic.

But the virus persisted in other parts of Asia, and reached Europe and Africa; that worries scientists, because most bird flus emerge briefly and then vanish. Millions of infected birds have died, and many millions more have been slaughtered. Since 1997, about 600 humans have been infected, and more than half died.

Dr. Donald A. Henderson, a leader in the eradication of smallpox and now a biosecurity expert at the University of Pittsburgh, noted that even the notorious flu pandemic of 1918 killed only 2 percent of patients.

“This is running at 50 percent or more,” Dr. Henderson said. “This would be the ultimate organism as far as destruction of population is concerned.”

Dr. Fouchier was working on AIDS when the first bird flu outbreak occurred. He immediately became fascinated by the new disease and gave up AIDS to study it. He has worked on bird flu for more than a decade.

The medical center in Rotterdam built a special 1,000-square-foot virus lab for this work, a locked-down place where people work in spacesuits in sealed chambers with filtered air and multiple precautions to keep germs in and intruders out and to protect the scientists from infection. Dr. Fouchier said that even more security measures had been added recently because of the publicity about his work.

The Dutch government and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the laboratory, and the National Institutes of Health gave the Erasmus center a seven-year contract for flu research.
Because a government advisory panel has recommended that the full recipe for mutating the bird flu virus not be published, Dr. Fouchier declined to explain much about how it was done.

But he previously described the work at a public meeting, and various publications have reported that the experiment involved creating mutations in the virus and then squirting it into the respiratory tracts of ferrets. When the ferrets got sick, the researchers would collect their nasal secretions and expose other ferrets to the virus. After repetitions of this process, a strain of virus emerged from sick ferrets last summer that could infect animals in nearby cages without being squirted into them — just by traveling through the air.
The published reports say five mutations were all it took to transform the virus. Dr. Fouchier declined to confirm or deny that, and would say only that it took “a handful” of mutations.

Looking back on that day in July with Sander Herfst, the member of his team who told him the virus had gone airborne, Dr. Fouchier said, “We both needed a beer to recover from the shock.”

Then they planned their next step, repeating the experiment to make sure the results were reliable. There was one major obstacle: they had run out of ferrets. They ordered a new shipment from Scandinavia. So they had to wait several weeks to find out whether their discovery was real. Dr. Herfst took a vacation, timed to end the day the ferrets arrived.

They ran the tests again. Once more, A(H5N1) went airborne.

643. Tiniest of Spiders Are Loaded With Brains

By Sindya B. Bhanoo, The New York Times, December 26, 2011

Tiny spiders have brains so large that they fill up their body cavities and extend into their legs, a new study reports.

Researchers measured the central nervous systems of nine species of spiders in a range of sizes. While the smallest had smaller brains in absolute terms, relatively speaking their brains were enormous.

“The basic trend was that the smaller the spider, the relatively larger its brain is,” said William Eberhard, a biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Costa Rica and an author of the study, which appears in the journal Arthropod Structure & Development.
In the smallest spiders, Dr. Eberhard and his colleagues found, the central nervous systems filled nearly 80 percent of the cephalothorax, or body cavity, including 25 percent of the legs.
“The brain tissue of the nervous tissue is metabolically expensive,” he said. “These little spiders are paying a very large price to keep these brains functioning.”
At times, that price includes a deformed body cavity bulging with brain matter, which may in turn compromise the size of the digestive system, Dr. Eberhard said.
The researchers focused on tropical spiders in Panama and Costa Rica, of which there are a wide variety that range in size. The large species in the study weighed 400,000 times as much as the smallest.
Since the smallest spiders make a major investment in brain size, they are able to build the same kinds of complex webs as larger spiders, Dr. Eberhard said.
“The smallest spiders are behaviorally just as competent as the largest spiders,” he said.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

642. Science and Censorship

By William J. Broad, The New York Times, December 26, 2011

We have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not; and take all an oath of secrecy for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret; though some of those we do reveal sometime to the State, and some not.”

The specter of censorship loomed over science last week with news that a federal advisory panel had asked two leading journals to withhold details of experiments out of fear that terrorists could use the information to make deadly flu viruses — the first time the government had interceded this way in biomedical research.

But science and secrecy go back centuries, their conflicting agendas often rooted in issues of war and advanced weaponry. Self-censorship — the kind of confidentiality being requested of the two journals, Science and Nature — was even mentioned by Bacon, the 17th-century British philosopher long credited with illuminating the scientific method.
Governments have repeatedly tried to keep scientific information secret in fields as diverse as math and cryptography, physics and nuclear science, optics and biology. Now the call for concealment is falling on one of the hottest of contemporary fields — virology, where researchers are tinkering with the fundamentals of life to better understand whether altered flu germs might set off deadly epidemics.
“It’s a story with mythological resonance,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists and the publisher of Secrecy News, an e-mail newsletter. “It reflects the view that knowledge is power and some kinds of knowledge have destructive power.”
A lesson of history, Mr. Aftergood added, is that censorship often fails because science by nature is inherently open and gossipy — all the more so today because of instant communication and international travel.
“The notion that the boundaries of knowledge are defined by what is published by Science and Nature is quaint,” he said, referring to the journals. “For better or worse, the way that knowledge is disseminated today is ever less dependent on the flagship journals. It’s done by global scientific collaboration, draft papers, online publication, informal distribution of preprints, and on and on.”
Last week, one of the flu scientists under pressure to limit publication raised a different objection. The journals are considering distributing the sensitive data to only a subset of responsible public health researchers, who could then use it to bolster germ defenses, but the scientist, Ron A. M. Fouchier, questioned how feasible that was.
The list of potential recipients “adds up to well over 100 organizations around the globe, and probably 1,000 experts,” said Dr. Fouchier, of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. “As soon as you share information with more than 10 people, the information will be on the street.”
Federal officials and private experts argued that governments have a duty to safeguard the public welfare — even if that means sometimes putting limits on scientific freedoms.
“I want science to be as open and transparent as possible,” said David R. Franz, a biologist who formerly headed the Army defensive biological lab at Fort Detrick, Md. “My concern is that we don’t give amateurs — or terrorists — information that might let them do something that could really cause a lot of harm.”
And Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science, said the question for his journal was one not of federal intrusion but of “trying to avoid inappropriate censorship.
“It’s the scientific community trying to step out front and be responsible,” he said.
The most famous case of scientific suppression remains that of Galileo, who in 1633 was forced by the Roman Catholic Church to disavow his finding that the Earth revolves around the Sun. But over the centuries, the big clashes between science and the authorities came to center on highly destructive arms.
Starting in 1943, work in the United States on atom and hydrogen bombs led to a sprawling system of classification that in time involved millions of people and billions of dollars in security precautions. It was a world of safes and barbed wire, where individuals voluntarily gave up their rights of free speech.
In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed after being convicted of passing bomb secrets to Moscow.

But atomic lore kept leaking. Today, nine nations have nuclear weapons, and dozens more are said to possess the secretive information, the technical skills and — in some cases — the materials needed to make them.

A new field came under scrutiny in the mid-1970s, when Washington tried to clamp down on publications in cryptography — the creating and breaking of coded messages. A breakthrough threatened to make it easer for the public to encrypt messages and harder for federal intelligence agencies to decipher them.
Agents of the National Security Agency — an organization so secret its initials were jokingly said to mean No Such Agency — paid a visit to Martin Hellman, an electrical engineer at Stanford University.
“They said, ‘If you continue talking about this, you’re going to cause grave harm to national security,’ ” he recalled.
Eventually, the government gave up, and the cryptography advances grew into a thriving global industry.
A new case arose in 1982 as the Reagan administration, eager to foil spies during the final days of the cold war, blocked the presentation of about 100 unclassified scientific papers at an international symposium on optical engineering. Protests erupted, and the administration soon backed down.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — and the ensuing strikes with deadly anthrax germs that killed or sickened 22 Americans — produced a wave of new jitters and restrictions. The main target was biology and its ability to make deadly micro-organisms.
The Bush administration pulled thousands of sensitive patents, papers and documents from public access, and debate erupted over whether journals and scientists at the frontiers of biology should accept federal restrictions. Many argued that the benefits of open inquiry — including new ways to fight terrorists — outweighed the theoretical costs.
“Terrorism feeds on fear, and fear feeds on ignorance,” said Abigail A. Salyers, president of the American Society of Microbiology.
But in 2003, the editors of Science, Nature and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences issued a joint declaration saying that occasions might indeed arise when a paper “should be modified, or not be published.”
That day now seems to have arrived for advanced biology, at least in terms of developing a plan of response to the federal request. Publication of the two scientific reports — from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands — has been paused until the journal editors decide how to proceed.
Dr. Alberts, the editor of Science, laid considerable responsibility at the feet of the federal government.
“Our response,” he said in a statement issued last week, “will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.”
Asked if he saw the federal panel as overreacting, Mr. Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said no.
“They’re posing a question,” he replied, “not issuing orders.”
“There’s a world of difference between the government imposing the heavy hand of censorship and this board saying to take a second look,” Mr. Aftergood added. “I think they’re doing what they should do, which is to call attention to a difficult case. It’s the journals that will have to make the final decision.”

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

641. Selling Climate Uncertainty: Misinformation and the Media


By The Conversation, August 29, 2011
Today, The Conversation launches a week-long series, looking at how the media influences the way our representatives develop policy. To kick off, Stephan Lewandowsky asks how media misreporting undermines a functioning democracy.
It is a truism that a functioning democracy relies on independent and strong media that hold the powerful to account.
A tacit, and often overlooked, presumption underlying this principle is that the media pursue their role in an ethical and impartial manner.
If the media themselves abandon ethical standards and replace robust and truthful reporting with spin and the pursuit of an agenda, a crucial element of a functioning democracy has been lost.
In fact, without vigorous competition and meaningful legal checks, there is no reason why a privately-owned media conglomerate could not create an Orwellian environment that deceives politicians and large segments of the public alike.
Anyone inclined to doubt this should consider recent events in the UK involving the Murdoch media.
The behaviour exhibited by some Murdoch ink slingers, who by an act of grand self-delusion have labelled themselves “journalists”, beggars belief.
To hack into the phone of a missing school child, thus interfering with a police inquiry while arousing false hope in parents desperate for a sign of life from their daughter, surely must be considered an act of moral depravity.
Public revulsion at those actions has put an end to the docility with which British politicians have hitherto served the Murdoch press. As the multiple investigations proceed, more and more dubious practices have come to light — the “double agents” that worked for Murdoch from within Scotland Yard, for example — that even an imaginative novelist would not have invented for fear of seeming over the top.
It’s an Orwellian nightmare.
In Australia, News Limited figures have been quick to distance themselves from events in the UK, assuring us that such behaviour was limited to rogue elements among the British tabloids, and proclaiming that Australian outlets are serving the public with high ethical standards.
Some politicians appear to have been unimpressed by those protestations, and calls for an inquiry into the Australian media are refusing to go away.
Many Australian scientists have also remained unimpressed by the protestations not only of News Limited figures, but also by the media coverage of scientific matters by many Australian outlets, from the ABC to Fairfax to News Limited (the latter differing from the former two in a step function of accuracy).
Simply put, the Australian media have failed the public by creating a phoney debate about climate science that is largely absent from the peer-reviewed literature, where real scientific debates take place.
Over the next several days, a series of articles in The Conversation will shine an inquisitive light onto specific instances of misrepresentation, distortion, or spin by the Australian media as they relate to climate change.
There is an urgent need to analyse the media’s systemic failures, not just because a democracy can only function when the media play their role ethically and truthfully, but also because misrepresentations, once published, have lasting cognitive consequences.
Much research on how people update their memories shows that, well, it shows that people do not update their memories.
If people are told that Joe Blogs is a suspect in a jewellery theft, then a subsequent retraction — “Joe is no longer a suspect” — will often remain ineffective. Although people will recall the correction, their behaviour in response to inference questions reveals continued reliance on the false initial information. People will still nominate Joe when asked whom the police should interview in connection with the theft.
Misinformation sticks in people’s memories, even when they acknowledge a correction, and even when they earnestly seek to discard a memory they know to be false.
The potentially tragic implications of this human cognitive limitation are obvious in a judiciary setting.
Research conducted with “mock” jurors in an experimental setting typically reveals that although jurors state that they have obeyed the judge’s instruction to disregard compromised evidence, the jurors' behaviour — as revealed by them rendering guilty verdicts — remains largely unaffected by corrections.
Lest one think that those are “just findings from laboratory experiments,” it must be noted that a substantial proportion of the American public (between 20% and 30%) continued to believe that Weapons of Mass Destruction had been found in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, notwithstanding the fact that the search had remained futile. (And notwithstanding the fact that the absence of WMD’s eventually became official U.S. policy with bipartisan support.)
Of course, media coverage of the search for WMDs was characterised by literally hundreds of reports in which “preliminary tests” indicated the presence of chemical weapons, all of which then turned out to have been false alarms. (And to give the media credit, they were also reported.)
Clearly, it matters a great deal if reports in the media turn out to be false.
Even if corrected, misinformation tends to stick around in people’s minds.
Worse yet, there is some evidence that under certain circumstances, a correction may inadvertently reinforce the original, false information in people’s minds. For example, research by Professor Norbert Schwarz has shown that health-relevant information, when presented in the popular “myth vs. fact” format, can sometimes reinforce the myth, rather than replace it with the fact.
Clearly, it matters a great deal if the media misreport an issue, even if they issue a correction or apology.
When it comes to climate change, an issue of such global significance, failing to report the facts could thus have enormous repercussions, even if corrections are later issued.
Fortunately, there are some ways by which people can be encouraged to discount misinformation: I will consider those in a few days, after we analyse some specific instances of media spin.
This is the first part of our Media and Democracy series. To read the other instalments, follow the links here:.
                Part One: Selling climate uncertainty: misinformation in the media
                Part Three: Democracy is dead, long live political marketing
                Part Four: Selling the political message: what makes a good advert?
                Part Five: Drowning out the truth about the Great Barrier Reef
                Part Seven: Spinning it: the power and influence of the government advisor
                Part Eight: Cops, robbers and shock jocks: the media and criminal justice policy
                Part Nine: Bad tidings: reporting on sea level rise in Australia is all washed up
                Part Ten: Big money politics: why we need third party regulation
                Part Eleven: Power imbalance: why we don’t need more third party regulation
                Part Fourteen: The hidden media powers that undermine democracy
This article is about the media’s representation of climate change – we’d love to hear your opinions on that topic. If you would rather discuss the existence of climate change, there are many other articles on the site covering that issue: please take your comments to one of those discussions.

Stephan Lewandowsky  is a professor of Cognitive Science and Professorial Fellow, Cognitive Science Laboratories at University of Western Australia