Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Washington Post Haters Vindicated ?

What are the limits of he said/she said ? Is a universal consensus among independent scientists concerning a matter of natural science enough ? Not if a policy debate is involved. has this headline
"Stem Cell Foes Vindicated?"

which links to

"A Scientific Advance, a Political Question Mark

By Michael Abramowitz and Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 21, 2007; Page A04 "

The article reports debate about recent scientific articles on adult stem cells which discuss possible approaches to stem cell research which are not blocked by Bush's ban on the use of human blastocysts.

The article does not discuss the ethical debate about the use of blastocysts which must be protected from scientists so they can be routinely disposed of by fertility clinics. Thus it should be an article about science and whether the critics of stem cell research have been vindicated by the new research. Let's check the view of the single solitary person quoted in the article as someone who actually contributed to the new research and is an expert

One of the researchers involved in yesterday's reports said the Bush restrictions may have slowed discovery of the new method, since scientists first had to study embryonic cells to find out how to accomplish the same thing without embryos.

"My feeling is that the political controversy set the field back four or five years," said James Thomson, who led a team at the University of Wisconsin and who discovered human embryonic stem cells in 1998.

Hmm is that a vindication ? Doesn't sound that way to me. And this is one of the people whose contributions are flagged as a possible vindication of Bush in the headline.

On the other side Abramowitz and Weiss have a lawyer (Carter Snead, former general counsel for the President's Council on Bioethics, now on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame Law School) and the former editor of American enterprise, Karl Zinsmeister. Ah yes lawyers' expertise in developmental biology is well known.
Wikipedia on Zinsmeister's expertise in biology "Zinsmeister is a graduate of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and has also studied history as a special student at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland."

I stress that this is an article about the science of stem cells. It does not claim that there are new insights into ethical or legal issues. Yet there is not one single solitary scientist quoted in the article who is willing to answer the headline's question in the affirmative.

James Thomson isn't the only scientist quoted in the article.

"While this is exciting basic research, it could still take years to get this to work in humans in a way that could be used clinically," said Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass. "I cannot overstate that this is early-stage research and that we should not abandon other areas of stem cell research."

Lanza is quite right. He can not possibly stress it enough to convince the Washington Post to place the opinions on science of scientists on the same level as those of lawyers and former special students of history. He shouldn't feel bad. I don't think it is possible to stress anything that much.

Update: I decided it would be bad for my health to read Ruth Marcus's column "Krugman vs Krugman." Fortunately Mark Thoma read it so I don't have to. He claims that Marcus asserts that Krugman contradicted himself, because he asserts that the social security trust fund exists. Amazing if true. Just to check his claim, I'm going to read it after all.

The first is to deny that Social Security faces a daunting financing problem

[snip] Krugman wrote last week. "In fact, the whole Beltway obsession with the fiscal burden of an aging population is misguided."

Somebody should introduce Paul Krugman to . . . Paul Krugman.

"[A] decade from now the population served by those programs [Social Security and Medicare] will explode. . . . Because of those facts, merely balancing the federal budget would be a deeply irresponsible policy -- because that would leave us unprepared for the demographic deluge, with no alternative once it arrives except to raise taxes and slash benefits." (July 11, 2001)

"Broadly speaking, the next administration . . . will face two big economic tests. One . . . is whether it can stick to a fiscal policy, including a policy toward Social Security, that prepares this country for the demographic deluge." (Nov. 12, 2000)

OK so far Ruth Marcus has twice claimed that noting the existence of the trust fund is contradicting oneself. Krugman's current claim is that it is very possible that social security old age and disability pensions can be paid at scheduled levels forever with revenue from scheduled payroll taxes *and* the assets in the trust fund. What he claimed before was that a fiscal policy in which the unified budget deficit was zero was unsustainable. That is he was in favor of a lock box -- a commitment to balancing the general fund, that is balancing the budget not counting the social security administration surplus.

To aknowledge that in the future payments to baby boomers will be greater than payroll tax revenues was not to admit there there is a crisis, because the system was designed that way. Marcus is conveniently forgetting about trillions of dollars both those currently in the trust fund and those that will be added before the SSA begins to accept repayment of its generous loans to the general fund.

Clearly Marcus is economically illiterate or totally dishonest or most likely both.

However, that doesn't mean that Krugman hasn't changed his mind since 2001. She has 2 more quotes.

"The reason Social Security is in trouble is that the system has a large 'hole' -- basically a hidden debt -- because previous generations of retirees were paid benefits out of the contributions of younger workers . . . a multitrillion-dollar debt that somebody has to pay." (Oct. 1, 2000)

This is simple history not debatable at all except for the clause "social Security is in trouble". Not saying there is a crisis, but not what Krugman now believes exactly. The trouble is not specified. It might be that social security is in trouble because it is at the mercy of the wardens of its trust fund who are not to be trusted.

"[B]ecause the baby boomers' contributions were used to provide generous benefits to earlier generations, there isn't enough money in the system to pay the benefits promised to the boomers themselves." (June 21, 2000)

The interpretation of this depends on what you mean by "in the system". Does that mean "currently in the trust fund" or "in the trust fund plus future predicted surpluses so long as they last". I think the only interpretation consistent with ordinary English is the first. In other words, Krugman seems to have been saying that the social security administration needs not only the wealth it has but also the additional wealth that it will acquire. Therefore that additional wealth, the current and near futures surpluses, must be considered to be balanced by liabilities and not treated as free revenue for responsible current spending.

Krugman has been very consistent in arguing that the SSA old age and disability pension program is in OK shape so long as those entrusted with the trust fund are trust worthy. He does not now claim there is no problem and he never claimed there was a crisis. He has never, of course, been optimistic.

How can he be when our public policy debate is lead by lying idiots ?

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