Monthly Archives: October 2018

Deregulations Have Harmful Effects

It doesn’t matter, we won. Although this claim was made by President Trump in regard to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the supreme court, it could easily apply to most if not all of his accomplishments. He can claim two significant victories as president, the tax cut and deregulation of numerous environmental protections.

Republicans’ justification for tax cuts is always the same. Lowering taxes stimulates the economy and the growth in the economy will raise tax income despite the cuts. And as always it doesn’t work. Rather than increased revenue to the national coffers, The Congressional Budget Office is projecting that the annual deficit it will exceed 1.5 trillion dollars by 2028 and that assumes no changes from existing taxes and spending laws and no recession.

President Trump, with the devout approval of the republican party, appears to be winning on the deregulatory front as well. Even in the face of the most dire warning yet from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), his actions exacerbate global warming and climate change rather than reverse or even mitigate the problem. One might question the pronouncement of an individual scientist but the most recent IPCC report is based on a consensus of the world’s atmospheric scientists.

Imagine that you didn’t trust a diagnosis from your doctor and decided to get a second opinion, a reasonable precaution. By analogy with the IPCC report, you would have to go to hundreds of other doctors before you could find a different opinion, if at all.

Now is the time for us to be acting. You repair the roof while the sun shines, but the clouds are gathering and we are running out of time to act. The solution must be to decarbonise our energy systems. And it can be done with little to no change in our lifestyle. Efficiency through design and building codes save both energy and money. Fuel efficiency standards for automobiles and light trucks save both energy and money. Tighter controls of fugitive emissions of methane save both energy and money.

Wind and solar have the capacity to produce all of the energy we need in this country. The only shortfall is with energy storage, but we are not that far away. A modest investment in the development of battery storage plus overdue investments in the infrastructure for distribution and transmission of electrical energy is the path forward.

So what are we doing? Not just nothing, we are actually acting to make things worse. President Trump wants to burn more coal, roll back efficiency standards on cars and trucks, and remove restrictions on regulations of fugitive emissions of methane. By fiat; that is, executive order, he placed a thirty percent tariff on foreign-made solar panels. This has caused the shelving of billions of dollars of solar projects. Right here in the River Valley, Clarksville’s plan to expand their solar project is on hold.

If we are serious about making America great, we will do so by becoming the world’s leader in sustainable energy technology. Young Americans are much more concerned about the risks to the future, and their resolve to elect officials that care about the future and act accordingly will make the difference. VOTE BLUE

It’s Time for your Flu Shot

The efficacy of the flu vaccine in the 2017-2018 season was less than ideal, about 40 percent. This means that with the vaccination you were about 40 percent less likely to get the flu than without. The problem comes from nature of the Influenza virus itself. The virus is what is known as an RNA virus, when it reproduces it is likely to reproduce somewhat incorrectly. This makes matching the vaccine to the virus more difficult. Regardless, even with those low odds, you’re better off getting the shot and hopefully the vaccine will better match the virus this year.

Don’t be misled by anti-vaccination groups. They list scary sounding ingredients and list possible risks if exposed to millions of times higher doses than are present in a vaccine. An example is formaldehyde, present in many vaccines in trace amounts. In large doses it can be toxic, but not in the amounts present in vaccines. It is actually a component of natural metabolic processes in the body. If you want to talk about a dose, one bite from a pear contains many times as much formaldehyde than a slew of vaccinations. Don’t worry about exposures to trace amounts of ingredients.

The effectiveness of vaccinations depends on so-called herd immunity. To stop a communicable disease does not require absolutely everybody is vaccinated, just a high enough percentage to disrupt transmission. Some individuals can’t be vaccinated for certain diseases such as neonates for pertussis or because of severe immune reactions to proteins present in the vaccine. They are protected from disease by virtue of the fact that those around them have been vaccinated and therefore don’t carry the disease.

A real problem with getting a vaccination is a misperception of risk. A person may know of someone who got a flu shot, and had a bad reaction or had the shot and still got the flu. This knowledge introduces bias. It doesn’t however change the fact the overwhelming odds are in favor of getting the shot. Depending on the vaccine, the strain of influenza, and several host factors, “ … recent studies have supported the conclusion that the flu vaccination benefits public health, especially when the flu vaccine is well matched to circulating flu viruses” – Centers for Disease Control statement. The odds of a severe negative outcome, usually due to an allergic reaction to the vaccine are in the one to millions range.

Back to the bias of knowing someone for which a flu shot didn’t work, or had a reaction. Does knowing someone who won the lottery make you more likely to win the lottery? Most folks would say of course not. But this is the same kind of bias. You think of just one outcome among many. That doesn’t change your odds.

We all know someone who doesn’t wear a seat belt. S/he frequently justifies the self-endangerment by claiming that they know of a case where someone died due to the seat belt. The same bias. Evidence from literally billions of passenger miles shows seat belts save lives.

Vaccinations are generally safe and efficacious. Vaccinations protect not only those vaccinated but also others who can’t through the herd immunity. Participate in society, get the shot.

Evolutionary Views

Acceptance of Darwin’s brilliant deduction on evolution as the source of all biological diversity was brought to the world in 1859 with the publication of “The Origin of Species.” Now, almost 160 later, not all are convinced. The problem of accepting, really a matter of understanding, evolution becomes the sharpest when considering human origins.

All religions have their own take on the origin of mankind, and there are thousands of different stories. Abrahamic religions dominate with over half the world’s population and share the story of Adam and Eve. That said, much of modern religious thought sees no intrinsic conflict with evolution, but fundamentalist wings of many religions persist in denying what is obvious to science.

The United States is arguably the most scientific nation in the world based on the number of peer-reviewed scientific publications. Simultaneously, it is one of the more backward nations of the developed world with 4 in 10 adults believing that God created man in his image, with no evolutionary if, ands, or buts.

Besides the religious conflict about human origins is the problem of diversity itself. Who would ever have guessed that a whale is just a proto-cow that wandered back into the sea and decided to stay? Or that today’s chickens are yesterday’s dinosaurs. Many incrementally small changes over long periods of time have created the diversity we see today. We obviously can’t run experiments over billions of years to prove the concept once and for all, but experiments which prove evolution can be done in real time over the course of just a few years.

Johnathan Losos in his book “Improbable Destinies” described two such studies, one with guppies and one with lizards that clearly demonstrate how mutations and natural selection impact diversity.

The guppy study involved different populations of guppies in streams in Trinidad. It was observed that guppies in pools above waterfalls were much more flamboyant with colorful spots compared to guppies living in pools below waterfalls where drabness prevailed. The hypothesis was that the colorful guppies enjoyed an essentially predator free environment. Those below the falls were in pools which contained predators and therefore only the bland survive.

A simple but elegant experiment over the course of four years showed that transferring colorful guppies to a downstream pool free of other guppies but with predators causes the descendants to become much less gaudy and therefore less likely to be preyed upon. Random mutations among the guppies that produced less visible descendants were less likely to attract attention of predators.

The lizard study, actually brown anoles, also employed moving a population from one isolated locale to another. In this study the anoles from one small island were transferred to other small islands some with and some without predators. In a few short seasons, the anoles’ descendants on the islands with predators had shorter legs that allowed more facile movement into the upper branches of shrubs. Predation was the selective pressure, mutations allowed for the variance in leg length.

Real evolutionary morphological changes can be observed in a short time period, so now just imagine what kinds of changes can occur given millions and billions of years with different mutations and different selective pressures.

Charles Darwin (and Alfred Wallace who independently came to the same conclusion as Darwin) were right. We humans are evolutionarily related to every other living thing on the planet.

Democratic Disparities

Real democracy, where everyone gets an equal vote is just not working in the United States. Twice in the last five presidential election cycles we elected a minority president, George W Bush got half-million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000 and Donald Trump got three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Blame the construction of the electoral college. Each state is allotted a number of electoral votes equal to the sum of the state’s representatives and senators. This means that voters in small states have more electoral “oomph” than those in larger states. Taking an extreme example, the 266,464 registered voters in Wyoming select three electors. Each elector is selected by 88,213 voters. In California on the other hand, 19,411,771 registered voters share fifty-five electoral votes. Here each elector is selected by 352,941 voters. Essentially an individual vote in Wyoming counts four times as much as a vote in California.

The authors of the constitution had several reasons, but the perception now is that using the electoral college to elect the president gives the smaller states protection from domination by the larger states. Perversely, this allows the politics of the people in smaller states to dominate those in the larger states. Further confounding the disparity is the fact that with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, every state uses a winner take all distribution of its electoral votes.

The composition of U.S. Senate is equally undemocratic, with each state having two senators regardless of its population. One California senator represents twenty million people, whereas one in Wyoming only a quarter of a million, an eighty-fold difference in representation! The structure of the Senate came about via what is called the Connecticut Compromise in 1787 during the writing of the Constitution. It gave more power to the less populace states, several of which were slave-holding states in the south.

The House of Representatives, the people’s house, comes the closest to a federal democracy, but even here there is inequity. In 2016, the Republicans garnered 51 percent of the votes cast in the House elections. That earned them over 55 percent of the house seats. This is the result of how district lines are drawn. Gerrymandering, drawing the lines to favor one group over another is alive and well.

Steps can be taken to fix our undemocratic processes. The Supreme Court has yet to rule in a case where partisan gerrymandering has been claimed as the sole reason for the case but they may in the future.

An interesting attempt to solve the problem in the electoral college is in progress. Called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, it would reform the college by a binding agreement between states to award all of a state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. It only takes states holding 270 votes in aggregate, for the system to work. Currently, states representing 172 electoral votes, two-thirds of the number needed, have joined the compact. As soon as the requisite 270 votes are secured the compact goes into effect.