Friday, August 29, 2008

What’s the difference between a chimpanzee, a sewage sludge hauler, and my mother?

As I discovered while following the plight of an Austrian chimpanzee called Hiasl, that’s a very good question.

A Chimpanzee
Hiasl was captured in Sierra Leone in 1982. A pharmaceutical company attempted to smuggle him into Austria for its vivisection laboratory, but he was seized in customs. In 2007, the sanctuary where he had ended up went bankrupt, and a philanthropist wanted to donate money for his support. But according to Austrian law, only a person can receive money. The sanctuary’s creditors would get the donation – and the vivisection lab would get Hiasl.

Paula Stibbe, a British animal rights activist, petitioned the Austrian courts to be appointed as Hiasl’s legal guardian, but she would have to establish that Hiasl was a person. Chimpanzees, the argument went, shared 96 to 98.4% of human DNA and had a culture of sorts, so they should be considered people and granted certain human rights.

The Austrian courts rejected the argument, reasoning that Hiasl did not need a guardian, because he is not a disabled person – he is a normal chimpanzee. Furthermore, comparing a chimpanzee to a disabled person might encourage the perception that disabled people are like animals. The case is now being appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. (See References below for sources on Hiasl's story).

My Mother
I know what the Austrian judge means. Advocates for considering apes as humans rely on arguments such as this one, quoted in What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes, by bioethicist Jonathan Marks (2002, p. 190) in a discussion of the ethical quagmire such an argument bogs down in:

“We give human rights to children, to the aged and to the mentally infirm, to the autistic, to the deaf and dumb.... [Apes] can reason and communicate at least as well as some of the children and disabled humans to whom we accord human rights.”

My mother, in the last 7 years of her life, was one of those disabled people to whom Hiasl was being compared. I find that comparison inappropriate. A devastating stroke left my mother paralyzed and unable to communicate, even at the level that a chimpanzee might ask for a banana. When I was appointed as her legal guardian, it was to administer the complex legal, financial, medical, and personal affairs of what had once been a thoughtful, vibrant, active human being. It was not to accept donations on her behalf to save her from being sent to a vivisection laboratory.

Using a certain level of cognition, communications, and culture as a test to determine personhood has troubling implications. Scholars like Marks and linguist Steven Pinker are appalled at the common assumption that the “factoid” that chimpanzees share 98% of human DNA means that they are 98% human (Marks, 2002; Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, 1995, pp. 334–351). Marks points out that using degree of cognition to define humanity supports the central argument of books like The Bell Curve that put what looks like genetics at the service of repellent social and political philosophies.

Pinker analyzes the scientifically unsound nature of many of the claims that apes can use human language, like in the case of the chimpanzee Washoe, who was said to have learned American Sign Language:

“This preposterous claim is based on the myth that ASL is a crude system of pantomimes and gestures, rather than a full language with complex phonology, morphology, and syntax.” (p. 337)

The people who claimed to have taught Washoe ASL were all hearing people, Pinker says. The only deaf native ASL signer on the team asserted that none of Washoe’s gestures were really ASL signs.

We’re not doing a favor to animals, either, by insisting that they must be nearly as smart and articulate as we are to be worthy of humane treatment. Pinker asks, “What about all the creepy, nasty, selfish animals who do not remind us of ourselves.... Can we go ahead and wipe them out?” (p. 336)

A Sewage Sludge Hauler
We are especially confused about what personhood means in the U. S., due to the unusual interpretations we have historically made of the centuries-old legal principle that treats corporations as “persons”:

“The 14th Amendment was passed to protect the rights of former slaves after the Civil War. However, that very amendment became the favorite tool of lawyers seeking to establish corporations as “natural persons,” assuring them the human rights of due process, equal protection, freedom of speech, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure. In the same year they extended the 14th Amendment to corporations, the Supreme Court overturned a major civil rights act....

"Throughout the U.S., the civil rights of African-Americans were being scaled back in other courts, paving the way for segregation. In 1938, Justice Hugo Black remarked that of the cases in which the Supreme Court applied the 14th Amendment during the first 50 years after Santa Clara vs. Southern Pacific, “less that one-half of 1% invoked it in protection of the Negroe race, and more than 50% asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.” (Ecology Center)

In 2006, one township in Pennsylvania was so fed up with corporations dumping toxic sewage sludge that it took an unusual action, described in Mother Jones:

“[Licking Township] had passed an anti-sludge ordinance, only to be sued by a sludge hauler called Synagro, which argued that the township had infringed on its rights under the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War to guarantee "equal protection" to all. Synagro could make that argument because since the late 19th century, the Supreme Court has defined corporations as legal "persons," conferring on them many of the same rights that belong to flesh-and-blood citizens. And so, Licking's supervisors did something that has been variously described as creative, futile, or out-and-out revolutionary: They passed an ordinance declaring that henceforth, in their township, 'Corporations shall not be considered to be "persons" protected by the Constitution of the United States.'"

What's the Difference?
It's hard to dispute that humans ought to feel some responsibility for getting Hiasl out of the fix they have put him in. But conferring personhood on chimpanzees is not the answer. The world doesn’t need more confusion about who is a “real” human being and what hierarchy of rights should be granted to people who are “almost” human. On that topic, we’re confused enough already.

Bryner, Jeanna. "Court Claim: Chimps Are People, Too." Live Science, May 29, 2008.

Connolly, Kate. "Court to Rule if Chimp Has Human Rights." UK Guardian/The Observer, April 1, 2007.

Ecology Center. "Corporation as Person." Spring 2001. Berkeley, CA.

Keim, Brandon. "Should Chimpanzees Be Given Human Rights?" Wired Science. May 11, 2007.

Kole, William J. "Activists Want Chimp Declared a 'Person.'", May 4, 2008.

Marks, Jonathan. What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes. Ewing, NJ: University of California Press, 2002.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: HarperCollins, 1995, pp. 334-351.

Stafford, Ned. "Chimp Denied Legal Guardian.", BioEd Online. April 26, 2007.

tzramsoy. "If a Chimp Gets Its Rights…" BrainEthics, May 29, 2007.

Yeoman, Barry. "When Is a Corporation Like a Freed Slave?"
Mother Jones, November/December 2006.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Who was David Taylor?

I’m tremendously interested in the ways technology evolved in the 20th century. There are so many things we use today that simply didn’t exist at the end of the 1800’s. And yet here we are, taking ocean voyages on vessels with gyroscopes to stabilize them, watching planes take off from the deck of carriers, lighting our world with bulbs instead of flames. For me, one of the most fascinating innovations of that time is the use of model basins for the testing of scale-models of ships before the ships were built –- a practice still in widespread use today.

At the start of the twentieth century, the US Navy needed to design ships of metal, with propellers and engines, to replace their fleet of wooden sailing vessels. Until that time the norm had been to build a ship and then see how it performed. This time, the Navy decided to follow the example of the navies of Europe and test scale-models first. But before they could test the models, they needed a place to test them.

They chose David Watson Taylor, a brilliant mathematician who’d graduate with distinction from both the US Naval Academy and the Royal Naval College in England, to oversee the construction of the Experimental Model Basin at the Old Navy Yard in Washington, DC. His task was to construct a basin – trench – to test the models, record his findings, and use those results to suggest modifications to the design of the vessels before any work on them was begun. It wouldn’t be as simple as it sounds.

The first thing Taylor had to do was construct a basin and a building to house that basin on the ground provided by the Navy. They gave him land very close to the Anacostia River, with weak streams running underneath and quicksand at one end. Taylor had his plans. He had his land. And he had no time to waste. He came up with the idea of preparing the ground beneath the basin, then driving pilings into the soil on either side of the space for the walls of the basin and creating a wall around that area. The intent was to keep the water in the soil from exerting pressure on the outside floor and walls of the basin – which would cause it to collapse when not filled. His modifications worked and the walls stood.

He decided to use alum to get the dirt in the water from the Potomac –- used to fill the basin –- to settle before it was in the basin because he needed clear water. He came up with the idea of allowing a stream to run into the basin to keep it filled with a constant amount of water. He designed baffles and wave breakers to settle the motion of the water between tests and designed a massive towing carriage to run along tracks mounted on the upper edges of the basin while towing the models through the water in the basin….

He did all this before he could even get started. When he finally was ready to test the models he found that the paraffin models had lost their shape in the heat of a DC summer. But he couldn’t wait for cooler weather and he had no way to keep the water cooler. He needed something else and here is where his innovation saved the day. Taylor decided to make his models out of pine because it would hold its shape and was in plentiful supply. To make identical models posed a problem. Doing it by hand just didn’t afford the necessary precision. He designed a machine that would turn out identical model forms. While he was at it, he realized he could build the models in a way that would allow different types of hulls and other external parts to be varied by test. Now that he had the identical models, he needed a uniform surface. He hit upon painting each model part with several coats of varnish – ensuring a smooth surface.

Taylor’s tests formed the basis of many of the principles of hull design still in use today. His work on the “wetted surface of ships,” the optimal ratio of width to length of a ship, the type and pitch of propeller, the use of a bulbous bow beneath the waterline… All of these came out of Taylor’s testing. And he was one of the founding members of NACA –- now NASA –- because of his conviction that it would someday be possible to transport planes on ships.

Rear Admiral David Watson Taylor. I’ll write more about his work in the future!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Review: When Science Goes Wrong

When Science Goes Wrong: Twelve Tales from the Dark Side of Discovery by neuroscientist Simon LeVay (Plume, 2008) is fascinating reading for those of us who take an interest in the impact of science on society. LeVay presents 12 stories of disaster in a range of scientific and technological fields such as medicine, engineering, psychology, meteorology, forensic science, and volcanology, and over a period of time from 1928 to the present.

The failures occurred for a variety of reasons, raising a number of philosophical and policy questions. Some of the failures appear to be mostly due to individual recklessness. Geologist Stanley Williams ignored warnings and scorned protective gear while leading an expedition into the crater of an active volcano in 1993, causing the deaths of 9 people. A barrage of recriminations and justifications followed. Was Williams a daring innovator making invaluable contributions to science that could not be obtained in any other way? Or did a “culture of daredevilry” in the field of volcanology lead to bad science and unnecessary risks?

Other stories illustrate design flaws or ignorance of scientific principles that were only understood decades later. In 1928, the St. Francis Dam, built by water engineer William Mulholland to fuel the growth of the fledgling city of Los Angeles, failed catastrophically, leaving a 40-mile swath of death and destruction. A modern analysis attributed the failure to ignorance of the principle of hydrostatic uplift, which causes water seeping into the foundation to exert upward pressure and destabilize the dam.

Another design flaw described by LeVay ocurred in a nuclear reactor. In 1961, three operators died at the National Reactor Testing Station on Snake River Plain, Idaho, when one of them pulled out a control rod beyond its sixteen-inch safety limit, causing a runaway chain reaction. The reason was never established – theories ranged from a lack of training to murder-suicide, but clearly the design of the control rod made it too susceptible to human error.

These particular design flaws have been corrected in modern dams and nuclear reactors. But what principles are we not fully understanding today? Which of these failures of understanding will lead to disasters that will be clearly explained only in retrospect, by future analysts? In addition to unknown design flaws, LeVay’s stories invite us to consider the gamut of possible human errors: shortsightedness, arrogance, incompetence, fatigue, blind ideology, poor training, low morale, greed, ambition, lack of resources, failure to heed warnings, pressure for quick results, out-and-out fraud, and plain bad luck.

LeVay, a scientist himself, is not calling for a halt to all scientific and technological endeavor, or for rejecting science in favor of, say, creationism. But his book does give cause for considering what the magnitude of the stakes would be for a given scientific activity if something were to go wrong.

This brings me to the discussion of nuclear power begun by my co-blogger Gina in her last post and continued in a comment by red craig with a cogent defense of nuclear energy as a source of clean power. I agree with red craig that coal can hardly be called “safe.” But I believe the comment oversimplifies the question of nuclear waste disposal, and there are also other major policy issues.

Physics Today, in an analysis of Barack Obama’s and John McCain’s energy policy positions, notes: “Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power from the table.” But, the blog notes, “there is no future for expanded nuclear without first addressing four key issues: public right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation.” has a series of posts about a nuclear accident in Rhode Island in 1964 that caused the death of an inadequately trained operator. The posts consider the long-term waste-disposal problem posed by the site and the liability to taxpayers under the Price-Anderson Act for disasters of unimaginable magnitude.

The recent controversy over the potential nuclear waste disposal site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, also raises a number of questions. An ad released by the Barack Obama campaign criticizes John McCain for supporting the development of the site, while showing video of McCain objecting to the presence of nuclear waste in Arizona. The expense for storing nuclear waste there is also enormous. According to a recent report, the Yucca Mountain project will cost $38.7 billion more than was originally anticipated.

LeVay concludes his book by observing “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Errors occur constantly in the practice of science – they just usually don’t lead to major catastrophes. LeVay raises the question: Can – and should – anything be done to make science go wrong less often? He argues for an appropriate level of regulation and strict oversight, especially when science is applied to human needs and activities, which is when most of the disastrous consequences are likely to occur.

The current climate in our nation – hostility to regulation, reliance on the free market to solve all problems, and starvation of the national budget through extreme tax reduction and gargantuan military expenses – is hardly conducive to strict oversight of complex and potentially dangerous scientific activities. Hopefully, that climate will change with the next administration. But are we confident that we can trust the administration after that, and after that, and for the next thousand or so years that nuclear waste will be around, to keep us and our descendents safe?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nuclear Power Now?

August 1945.  America uses the horrifying and horrible power of atomic bombs in nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Today we struggle with our attitudes toward the use of nuclear power for domestic, peaceful purposes.  We could attribute this unease to some sort of collective squeamishness related to those days in 1945 but my informal survey reveals far less moral concern lurking behind our reticence.  The possibility of meltdown and the long-term safety of waste disposal top the list of considerations with, "We'll just wind up paying a fortune for nuclear power, too" close behind.

Given the cost of construction, containment, waste disposal, and operations it's naive to argue that nuclear power will wind up being a bargain in the long run.  There's just no way to guaranty it.  Then again, should monetary benefits be the test?  What if a switch to nuclear power sources would make a significant positive difference in Global Climate Change?  What if a a switch would put us ahead in terms of our carbon footprint -- that distressing number we can each calculate on sites like EarthLab -- by causing less damage to the environment in the long run?

Unfortunately, that's another question without a solid answer.  Any nuclear waste disposal schemes have to remain effective for generations.  They have to withstand damage by seismic events while ensuring there is no leakage.  It won't do us any good to reduce our carbon imprint while poisoning our groundwater and soil.  Given the current level of technology, can we safely and effectively dispose of nuclear waste for all time?  How about for the time it will take to develop and test more effective methods?  Is that a gamble worth taking?

And what about a nuclear accident?  Today we can build reactors with passive safety features.  Features that use the laws of physics to slow nuclear reactions in the event of a problem -- without the need for immediate human intervention.  These smart facilities don't rely upon effective communication, proper operating procedures, or human cooperation to keep things under control in the event of a malfunction.  Is that enough?

As recently as twenty or thirty years ago -- the days of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island -- the state of technology gave us reason to pause.  Are our concerns warranted today?  Will nuclear power be more expensive in the long run?  Will we have difficulty disposing of the waste effectively?  Are nuclear accidents with severe implications a forgone conclusion?  Is it time for America to embrace the use of nuclear power?

Please weigh in with your thoughts.