Socialised healthcare? Yes please!

Since I commented on Barack Obama’s difficulties last week things have improved for him considerably, with his healthcare reforms finally signed into law.

The final bill may not be entirely what many on the left were hoping for but given the entrenched interests he was battling against and the wholly dishonest and unprincipled disinformation campaign by his opponents (“death panels” etc) this is still a considerable achievement.

Unsurprisingly there has been a rather hysterical reaction from opponents on the right, for example this from GOP congressman Devin Nunes

Today we are turning back the clock. For most of the 21st century, people fled the ghosts of communist dictators and now you’re bringing the ghost back into this chamber. With passage of this bill, they will haunt Americans for generations. Your multi-trillion dollar health care bill continues the Soviets, failed Soviet socialist experiment. It gives the federal government absolute control over healthcare in America.

Well quite, why would Americans want a socialised, communist even, system like that in the UK – where the state exerts so much control over our healthcare, spending our tax dollars (or rather pounds) with abandon?

P.S. According to the OECD, public spending on health in 2007 as a proportion of GDP was -

UK – 6.86%
USA – 7.26%

Gordon’s revenge

It’s good to see that Labour has taken such quick and decisive action against the former ministers caught up in the lobbying sting. It would be nice to think that this is a purely principled reaction and the start of a crackdown on political lobbying and on former ministers filling their boots by taking lucrative jobs either with lobbying firms or companies which had dealings with their departments while they were ministers (see here for example).
Or just possibly it has someting to do with the fact that two of the ministers, Hewitt and Hoon, were involved in the abortive coup against Brown earlier this year.
Either way, given the sheer useless they displayed during their ministerial careers it is difficult to have any sympathy for Hoon and Hewitt.

Return of the undead

It has been another difficult week for Barack Obama, with his little problem with Israel. What with his problems getting his healthcare reforms through congress and in finding a way to close Guantanamo Bay it might be understandable if Liberals on both sides of the pond were getting slightly frustrated, so it is fitting that in the last few days we have been given a reminder of why, whatever Obama’s faults, we should at least be truly grateful that the Republicans, or specifically the particular faction represented by Bush and his cronies, are out of power.

First we have Bush’s chief political strategist Karl Rove doing the rounds, touting his book and defending the use of waterboarding on terrorist subjects.

“I’m proud that we used techniques that broke the will of these terrorists and gave us valuable information that allowed us to foil plots such as flying aeroplanes into Heathrow and into London, bringing down aircraft over the Pacific, flying an aeroplane into the tallest building in Los Angeles and other plots,” he said.
“Yes, I’m proud that we kept the world safer than it was, by the use of these techniques. They’re appropriate, they’re in conformity with our international requirements and with US law.”

All very noble sounding of course, but even if one accepts that waterboarding does not constitute torture (and that requires a rather wide stretch of the imagination) we should be aware that this was only one kind of abuse which was suffered by detainees and remember the practice of extraordinary rendition, the black prison network and the outsourcing of torture to regimes less concerned with their international obligations and legal niceties. Continue reading

Amnesty and Gita Sahgal – keeping it in perspective

Flying Rodent has an excellent post here which pretty much nails the arguments over Amnesty International and its dispute with Gita Sahgal, the head of its gender unit over its “association” with Mozam Begg and CagePrisoners. There isn’t much more I can really add, except that if people are making a fuss over this because they are genuinely concerned about Amnesty protecting its reputation (and I don’t doubt this is true in some cases) then they might take care to keep their concerns and the tone in which they express them in proportion on the basis that AI is generally run by pretty decent people who are not terrorist huggers and on the whole does a large amount of very important work which dwarfs any individual (possible) errors of judgement like this. And also take care to distance themselves from those who don’t have such noble motives but are either using this to promote a wider agenda, either to portray all liberal lefty types as appeasers of terrorists and Islamists, or to actively undermine AI itself.
Of course AI should not be immune from criticism – like any organisation it can make mistakes and it hasn’t handled the whole situation very well. But it is perfectly possibly to make pointed but constructive criticism while at the same time making a wider defence of the organisation and its work as well.

The Guardian’s Fred Pearce seems to be confused

The Guardian is not the first place one expects to see stories jumping on the “climategate” bandwagon, but they made a big splash this week with this story by Fred Pearce.

Phil Jones, the beleaguered British climate scientist at the centre of the leaked emails controversy, is facing fresh claims that he sought to hide problems in key temperature data on which some of his work was based.
A Guardian investigation of thousands of emails and documents apparently hacked from the University of East Anglia’s climatic research unit has found evidence that a series of measurements from Chinese weather stations were seriously flawed and that documents relating to them could not be produced.

The “evidence” which supposedly incriminates Jones seems to me to be rather flimsy, but my point is not to argue the rights and wrongs of the accusation. What I find a bit odd is that Fred Pearce seems to have rather changed his view of the hacked emails – after all he had previously published a piece with the headline “How the ‘climategate’ scandal is bogus and based on climate sceptics’ lies” with the sub-heading “Claims based on email soundbites are demonstrably false – there is manifestly no evidence of clandestine data manipulation” in which he wrote

Almost all the media and political discussion about the hacked climate emails has been based on brief soundbites publicised by professional sceptics and their blogs. In many cases, these have been taken out of context and twisted to mean something they were never intended to.

Of course people do sometimes change their positions on particular issues, there’s nothing wrong with that. So how long did it take Pearce to undergo this rather drastic conversion? Well the piece alleging malpractice based on evidence in the hacked emails was posted on the Guardian website at 21:00 on 1st February, whereas the piece claiming that the “climategate” scandal was bogus was posted at , er, 18:04 on the same day, less than three hours earlier.

Is it just me or does Fred Pearce seem to be somewhat confused?

Daily Mail spreading climate change misinformation again

Note: This piece has been updated on 15th December

The Daily Mail seems to have found yet more evidence to persuade its readers that they should be skeptical of man-made global warming. This piece by David Rose has two startling revelations – that both proxy data and an important diagram in an IPCC report were manipulated to make past temperatures appear cooler than they actually were, and that weather station data was also manipulated to show warming in recent times which may not have actually occurred. I don’t have time now to address the latter claim, but you can see a good summary here. However, I would like to address the question of the temperature data in some detail. Continue reading

Speaker’s wife in “didn’t spend college days doing ironing” shock!

I can’t say I have any interest in the recent revelations about Sally Bercow, wife of the speaker – what people got up to in their college days is a matter for them as far as  I’m concerned. However, I couldn’t help noticing this in the Mail on Sunday yesterday.

Mrs Bercow, 40, shocked the Commons last week by revealing her promiscuous, binge-drinking past

Yes, I can imagine that to our esteemed Members of Parliament the notion that someone (and a woman at that!) might indulge in a bit of casual sex or, heaven forbid, binge drinking, and at university of all places, is entirely shocking and so at odds with their own clean-living background.

It’s another one for the “Audience from clean-living TV and media industries shocked at mildly risque joke by presenter at awards ceremony” category.

AGW deniers in “statistically illiterate” shock

One of the most popular myths promoted by those skeptical about man-made global warming is that warming has stopped and, in fact, the trend has even reversed in recent years. This illusion largely stems from the fact that 1998 was an exceptionally hot year and 2008 relatively cool due to the respective el Niño and la Niña events of those years.
Despite the fact that the current decade is actually the hottest on record, that eight of the last ten years are among the twelve hottest ever and that ten years is in any case too short a period to represent a meaningful trend, this myth has been remarkably successful – it is not just the usual suspects who are promoting it, even the BBC seem to have been taken in.

Climate scientists and other interested parties have already attempted to correct this misapprehension based on science, unfortunately without much success, but now Associated Press has made an excellent contribution to the debate which demonstrates that the claims made by the deniers are nonsensical from a statistical point of view.

In a blind test, the AP gave temperature data to four independent statisticians and asked them to look for trends, without telling them what the numbers represented. The experts found no true temperature declines over time.

The AP sent expert statisticians NOAA’s year-to-year ground temperature changes over 130 years and the 30 years of satellite-measured temperatures preferred by skeptics and gathered by scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Statisticians who analyzed the data found a distinct decades-long upward trend in the numbers, but could not find a significant drop in the past 10 years in either data set. The ups and downs during the last decade repeat random variability in data as far back as 1880.

Saying there’s a downward trend since 1998 is not scientifically legitimate, said David Peterson, a retired Duke University statistics professor and one of those analyzing the numbers.

Identifying a downward trend is a case of “people coming at the data with preconceived notions,” said Peterson, author of the book “Why Did They Do That? An Introduction to Forensic Decision Analysis.”

They also nailed the way the deniers have cherry picked the data to suit their agenda.

Grego produced three charts to show how choosing a starting date can alter perceptions. Using the skeptics’ satellite data beginning in 1998, there is a “mild downward trend,” he said. But doing that is “deceptive.”

The trend disappears if the analysis starts in 1997. And it trends upward if you begin in 1999, he said.

I doubt it will silence the deniers but we now know that on this particular question their arguments are both scientifically and statistically illiterate.

Hat tip: Climate Progress

Thoughts on assisted suicide

I have to say that euthanasia is one issue on which I genuinely find it impossible to reach a firm opinion. Still it’s right that the CPS has issued guidelines clarifying the law on assisted suicide – if people really feel moved to carry out such a drastic act they should at least know where they stand legally. What I don’t quite understand though is, given that these guidelines have mainly arisen from people travelling to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end their lives, why citizens of this country should be prosecuted for something they did in a foreign country which is not illegal in that country. While there are some crimes (such as torture) which are so grave as to transcend national boundaries I think in general that people should be expected to obey the laws of whichever country they happen to be in at the time.

Incidentally, watching a report on this issue on last night’s news I was slightly disconcerted to hear my wife wonder aloud how much places such as Dignitas charge. I mean I’ve only got a slight cold FFS.

An unsatisfactory conclusion

So Abdelbaset al-Basit al-Megrahi has abandoned his appeal against his conviction for the Lockerbie bombing and will now presumably be allowed to return to Libya on compassionate grounds, to live out his last days there before he finally succumbs to his prostate cancer. And a long and controversial chapter in British legal history somes to an end.
Al-Meghrahi was found guilty by a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands with a panel of judges and no jury. The case against him appears to be flimsy – the Crown’s star witness was shopkeeper Tony Gaudi who sold the clothes which were in the suitcase containing the bomb originally gave a description which bore little resemblance to al-Megrahi and eventually only identified him after seeing his photo in a magazine which named him as the suspect. The only hard evidence was a fragment of a circuit board said to come from a timer of a type used by the Libyan secret service. Against that, the bomb is known to have been concealed in a Toshiba cassette recorder of the type previously used by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLB), the group initially thought to be responsible for the bombing.
The other evidence is circumstantial at best – for example there is no real evidence that the suitcase containing the bomb was put on the plane in Malta, as claimed by the Crown. Certainly some of the families of those who died in the bombing are unconvinced.
We don’t know what the result of al-Megrahi’s appeal would have been, and the government was trying to supress certain documents which were crucial to his case. But this outcome suits no-one – for those who believe he is guilty the perpetrator of one of the worst terrorist outrages of modern times will now be free, for those not convinced the questions remain. All in all an unsatisfatory end to a controversial and, of course, tragic saga.