Archive for: January, 2008

Mental Health and the Rapidly Breaking Army

It's safe to say that 2007 wasn't the best year of US Army 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside's life. She started off the year with a bullet wound to her torso that damaged, among other things, one lung, her liver, and her spleen. She ended her year as an outpatient at Walter Reed, waiting for her superiors to decide whether or not she would have to stand court-martial for inflicting that wound upon herself. In between, she had to recover from her physical wounds, learn to deal with the inner demons that led to them, she had to deal with superior officers who believed that she would be more appropriately handled as a criminal than a patient, and cope with a system that constantly threatened soldiers with mental illness with discharge and no benefits. It's not entirely clear that 2008 is going to be a better year for her. On Tuesday, the Army announced that they were dropping all charges against her. At the time of that announcement, she was in intensive care, recovering from a second failed attempt to take her own life.

In the note that she wrote before swallowing whatever pills she had around her, she said that she was "very disappointed in the Army". It's hard to find any reason for her not to be disappointed. The Army's treatment of her has been absolutely abysmal. Unfortunately, the same can be said for many other soldiers and veterans. Although the Army has been working to improve mental health care, the system is not where it needs to be, and faces no shortage of hurdles along the way.

According to the December 2, 2007 Washington Post article that first presented Lt. Whiteside's case to the public, there were a number of things that happened in Iraq that may have contributed to her mental illness and suicide attempt. I'm not going attempt to discuss that, or, for that matter, the exact actions she took in Iraq that her commanders at Walter Reed felt were so egregious as to warrant criminal prosecution. No matter what happened in Iraq, the things that happened when she returned to Walter Reed very clearly demonstrate some of the problems that the Army is having when it comes to handling mental health issues.

The problem that Lt. Whiteside's case illustrates most clearly involves the attitude that too many career combat arms officers have toward soldiers with mental health issues: they're an excuse, not an illness.

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Fear and Loathing from the Discovery Institute

Jan 27 2008 Published by under Anti-Evolutionism

Very early this morning, the Discovery Institute's Rob Crowther posted an article over at the DI's "why's everyone always picking on us" blog. I'm not exactly sure what inspired Rob to get some work done late on a Saturday night, but the result is an article that's so chock full of hysterically absurd misrepresentations and bizarre claims that it's impossible to resist the urge to comment.

The apparent cause for Rob's rant was his displeasure with an op-ed that was published in the Austin American-Statesman on Friday. The op-ed was written by the past-president, president, and president-elect of The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, on behalf of the entire Board of Directors of the organization. In the op-ed, they noted that recent events in Texas have caused many scientists in the state to become more concerned about attacks on science education, and stated that the position of their organization is that Intelligent Design is not science, and should not be taught as such. The authors' position is clearly stated and their tone is reasonable. That's what I thought when I read it, anyway.

Rob Crowther disagrees. In fact, he thinks that the authors of the op-ed compared the Intelligent Design movement to Nazis. His reasoning is so completely and utterly insane that it defies the imagination.

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Assessing Diversity in the Past

Jan 24 2008 Published by under Biology, Geology, Science

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Over at Evolving Thoughts, John Wilkins has a post that criticizes a recently-published journal article. Normally, I agree with John - in fact, if it's true that the best measure of someone's intelligence is how often their views match yours, then John Wilkins is an absolute genius. But even Einstein had off-days, and (again, based on the agreement standard) I think this might have been one of John's.

The article in question, by paleontologists Sarda Sahney and Michael Benton, examines how long it took for ecosystems to recover after the end-Permian extinction. The dinosaurs weren't around then, so the end-Permian doesn't usually get the attention that the end-Cretaceous does, but it was by far a much more significant event. By some estimates, more than 95% of all animal species went extinct at that time. John's main complaint is with the way paleontologists compute estimates like that, and I'll explain why his objections are a bit on the idealistic side later on. First, let's take a look at what the authors did, what they found, and why their results are way cool.

When scientists study mass extinctions, they are usually interested in one of two things: what happened to cause the extinction, and what happened after the extinction. Both of those questions are important, not just because they help us understand what things were like millions of years ago, but also because they can help us better understand the potential consequences of some of our actions right now. In this study, Sahney and Benton are focusing on the second question. They want to know how long it took for new species to evolve and re-establish the level of diversity that was seen in terrestrial tetrapod ecosystems before the Permian extinction.

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The Dissent from Darwinism List - again.

Jan 23 2008 Published by under Anti-Evolutionism, Claims About Science, Religion

Over at the Discovery Institute's blog, Rob Crowther is playing up the "Dissent from Darwinism" list. Again. The list is nothing new. They've been working on it for several years now, and have managed to accumulate "over 700" signatures from around the world. Given the number of scientists on the planet, and the degree to which the DI folks have relaxed their definition of "scientist", it's hardly a stellar performance on their part. As much as I'd like to ignore the list for being the laughable public relations gimmick that it is, I'm not going to this time. Crowther managed to punch one of my buttons with his latest attempt to describe the reasons that people sign this list:

Signers of the Dissent List have signed the list because it is their professional opinion that the evidence is lacking for the claims for the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Period. Nothing more, and nothing less.

It's their professional opinion? Based on what, exactly?

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Curse You, Squid Baron!

Jan 19 2008 Published by under Truly Misc

Unlike many of the denizens of ScienceBlogs, I'm not in North Carolina for the 2nd Annual ScienceBlogging conference. I figured that any party that PZ Myers isn't at isn't worth attending. Now, I find that he's gone and snuck down there behind my back. (Apparently after one hell of a makeover, too.

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Deploying the Injured and Breaking the Army.

Jan 18 2008 Published by under "Supporting" the Troops

Via today's Daily Kos Cheers and Jeers, I learned about a story in yesterday's Denver Post that details allegations that the Army is deploying troops who should be left at home (I missed Olbermann's take on it last night). According to the article, commanders are deploying soldiers who don't meet basic medical standards. The article focuses on a couple of cases, with one - the case of Master Sgt. Denny Nelson - getting the most attention. Master Sgt Nelson suffered a serious injury to his foot prior to deployment, and was not supposed to run, jump, or lift more than 20 pounds. That's a bit of a problem if he's going to go somewhere he might need to run or jump - like, say, a base that is occasionally subjected to mortar and rocket attacks.

Reading that article, I had the strangest sense of deja vu. It was like I'd read that article before - probably because I almost did. Back in March, a remarkably similar same appeared at Salon.com. In that instance, Master Sgt. Ronald Jenkins, who had a spine injury, was the featured soldier and the unit was the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry. This time, it's Master Sgt. Nelson, and the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry. Aside from that, the biggest difference between the two stories is the 9 month difference in time. I commented on the Salon story in detail when it came out, and virtually everything I wrote then applies equally well to the current case.

The underlying cause of all of these problems is easy to spot, but very, very worrying:

The. Army. Is. Broken. And. It's. Gonna. Get. Worse.

This is not news, but it bears repeating - if only to stave off the inevitable accusations that it's all the Democrats' fault when the full extent of the problem becomes apparent over the next several years.

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Recount Redux

Jan 18 2008 Published by under 2008, Elections, Politics, Presidential

It's been a couple of days since I posted on the New Hampshire recount. At the time, I fully expected that I wouldn't do another post on the topic, but a couple of things that have happened since then changed my mind. First, Scibling Chris Chatham included me in a list of people who he thinks should get off their "soapboxes", stop "hurting America", and focus on the statistical anomaly he's identified. Second, and far more importantly, preliminary recount results are in from a number of precincts.

First, let's look at this "Diebold Effect" thing again. When I took my first look at the results, I decided that a detailed statistical analysis would not be appropriate, and I stand by that. My decision to avoid the potential pitfalls of an inappropriate statistical analysis is not merely because I "assume" that demographic factors don't always explain all of an election result, but because I think that there's a factor that should explain at least some of the results, but which isn't included in analyses that focus on the demographics: campaign effort. We do not have data about where the campaigns chose to focus their efforts during the period between Obama's win in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary.

In fairness to Chris, he did attempt to take this into account after I pointed this out the first time. He found a list of Clinton campaign offices, included their presence as a variable in his analysis, and found that the "Diebold Effect" was still significant. Unfortunately, I don't think that the variable he used as a proxy for campaign effort was remotely adequate. The presence of a campaign office might reflect decisions about where to focus effort that were made early in the campaign, but it's unlikely to reflect last-minute decisions about where to focus effort. (For example, did the campaign shift volunteers from office to office?)

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Machine Votes, Hand-Counted Votes, and the Willie Sutton factor.

Jan 16 2008 Published by under 2008, Elections, Presidential

In the week since the New Hampshire voting, a number of people have become increasingly concerned about some of the things that they've seen in the results. Two things, in particular, have gotten a lot of attention. The first is the difference between the pre-election polling, which had Obama ahead by a considerable margin, and the final result, which was a clear victory for Clinton. The second is a difference in outcome when hand-counted precincts are compared to precincts where the ballots were counted using machines. Obama came out ahead in the hand-count areas, while Clinton came out ahead in the machine-counted regions.

Some people are concerned enough about this that they want to see a recount, and it looks like there will be at least a partial one. Dennis Kucinich came up with a little under half the money needed for a full statewide recount of Democratic ballots, and the state has agreed to count until his money runs out. I expect that they'll find some differences between the machine totals and the hand-count (it would be shocking if there was 100% accuracy), but I'd be surprised if there's a large difference, and even more shocked if the discrepancies between machine and hand tallies systematically favor one candidate.

Clinton did receive a much greater percentage of the vote in machine-counted precincts than she did in the hand-counted areas, but I think there's a single factor that can explain most (but not all) of the difference. Imagine that you are running a statewide campaign. Wining the state is very, very important to you, and with less than a week to go before the election, you are running way behind in the polls. Where do you focus your effort and resources in the time you have left?

When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton famously replied, "because that's where the money is." If you are behind in the polls and want to win an election, you're going to focus your efforts (if you're smart) where the votes are.

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Learning about the Messenger

Jan 14 2008 Published by under Science

Today's big science news is the Messenger flyby of Mercury. The Messenger spacecraft is scheduled to do a flyby of the planet about four hours from now, en route to it's final destination - Mercury - which it will reach in 2011, after completing additional flybys of the planet Mercury in October, and the planet Mercury in 2009. (Apparently, the orbital dynamics of getting a spacecraft into orbit around a relatively small planet that's relatively close to a star are a bit complex.)

The main part of the scientific mission might not start for another few years, but there are still going to be a lot of firsts that are coming out of today's flight past the planet. Even though Mercury is closer to Earth than Mars is, we know much less about it. We can look at Mars without having to look almost directly into the sun at the same time, and we can put a probe into orbit around Mars without having to deal with as much of a fight with the Sun's gravity. This means that although we've now mapped all of Mars and have really good photographs of most of the surface of the planet, we haven't done either for Mercury. The last time that a mission passed close to Mercury was the Mariner 10 mission in 1974, and that one mapped and photographed less than half of Mercury's surface.

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Somewhere, Yossarian is Laughing. Or: How Not to Fund Stem Cell Research at the NIH

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

The Bush Administration has once again managed to reach new levels of self-parody. This time, the subject is embryonic stem cell research, and they've taken a position on funding that quite literally incorporates a classic Catch-22 problem. Sadly, though, the Catch-22 lacks anything that bears the faintest resemblance to humor when it's used to block funding for potentially lifesaving research.

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