Politics Archive

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 4 - Ebola

Ben CarsonThis is a continuation in my ongoing series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson, in particular by looking at articles he's written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

Today, I'm taking a look at his article, How To Keep Ebola Out Of America.

Out of the five articles I read at the start of this project, this is the worst. It is irresponsible fear mongering. Yes, Ebola is a major concern, and is something that needs to be monitored very closely. And Carson made some good points about expanding research and support in Africa. But Carson goes too far in wanting to temporarily exile citizens.

For this reason, I and many others are not comfortable with the idea of bringing infected individuals into our midst when we can readily treat them elsewhere. We can happily receive them back once the infectious danger has passed. When one does a logical benefit-to-risk analysis, it is clear that the worst things that could happen by intentionally bringing this dangerous disease to America are far worse than the best things that could happen.

To claim that U.S. citizens should not be allowed to return to the U.S. for treatment of Ebola is ludicrous. Despite the problems with our health care system discussed in the previous entry of this series, the U.S. still has first class quality of care. And the risk of an Ebola epidemic in the U.S. is miniscule.

Statements like the following are especially irresponsible:

I have no desire to induce panic, but we must realize that some viruses are known to undergo mutations, which make them even more virulent. If the Ebola virus becomes even more pathologic, the ensuing panic and destruction of human life could go far beyond what is currently being acknowledged.

Evolutionary biologists who specialize in this very issue have studied Ebola and determined that it's very unlikely that Ebola will mutate into a "super-pathogen" (N.Y. Times - Scientists Rein In Fears of Ebola, a Virus Whose Mysteries Tend to Invite Speculation). The article paraphrased the biologist, Edward Holmes, on such a possibility.

But it would be a mistake, he warned, to imagine that with a single mutation Ebola might become an airborne pathogen. The change would require many mutations in many genes, and it might be nearly impossible for so many mutations to emerge during a single outbreak. The mutated viruses would survive only if they were superior to the ones spread by bodily fluids.

Holmes was quoted in another portion of the article, making a statement that I very much agree with, and that I think is particularly relevant to articles like this from Carson.

"I've been dismayed by some of the nonsense speculation out there," said Edward Holmes, a biologist at the University of Sydney in Australia. "I understand why people get nervous about this, but as scientists we need to be very careful we don't scaremonger."

Carl Zimmer, the writer of that previously linked article, has another good article comparing Ebola with the flu, that helps put into perspective the dangers of this virus (As Ebola Spreads, So Have Several Fallacies). By way of comparison, the flu kills around 36,000 people in the U.S. every year, while this current Ebola outbreak had only three confirmed cases in the U.S. at the time Carson had written his article, and only one more since. I don't mean to trivialize the disease, but people's fear of it is way out of proportion to the risk it poses.

And just imagine if a plan like Carson's were to be implemented - it could have a chilling effect on volunteer efforts in Africa. How many volunteers would opt not to go to Africa to help if they knew their reward would be refusal back into the U.S.? And what would this decrease in volunteers do to treatment efforts in affected areas?

Carson's statements are especially troubling given that he is an M.D., and that many people in the general public won't pick up on the distinction of him being a surgeon vs. an epidemiologist. He should be more careful when speaking outside of his particular medical field.

This was an extremely irresponsible article on Carson's part. It just enhances the disproportionate paranoia in the public over this disease.

Summary on RealBenCarson.com: How To Keep Ebola Out Of America

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst


Continue to Part 5 - Global Warming

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 3 - Healthcare & Romanticizing the Past

Ben CarsonThis is a continuation in my ongoing series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson, in particular by looking at articles he's written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

In this entry, I'm looking at the article, A 'We the People' moment for a 'can-do' nation. To be honest, this article wasn't particularly focused, so it's hard to write a short reply that addresses everything. It ranged from criticizing the Affordable Care Act to criticizing government in general to bringing up Benghazi (of course) to pining for good old fashioned American values. But since the opening paragraphs were about healthcare, that's what I'll mainly focus on. Here's a paragraph that gives the gist of Carson's opinion on the Affordable Care Act.

The "Affordable Care Act," which probably seems less affordable to most Americans as we find out more about it, is the cause of this unnecessary misery. When the employer mandate, which is part of Obamacare, is activated early next year, tens of millions more Americans will face dramatic hikes in the cost of the health care they are currently receiving or will lose it all together. The current administration understood that this would happen, which occasioned the issuing of several executive orders delaying the implementation of the employer mandate until after the November 2014 elections.

There is no doubt that the Affordable Care Act has problems that need to be worked out. However, universal health care is an important factor for improving our nation's health care system (here's something I wrote a few years ago, but is still a good summary of why universal health care is an improvement over the previous system - Universal Health Care). One of the biggest problems with implementation of the ACA is that it wasn't implemented in the intended way. The individual mandate was supposed to be accomplished partly through employer provided healthcare, and partly through expansion of Medicaid*. However, nearly half of the states in the country refused the Medicaid expansion (and it took a Supreme Court battle for them to be able to do so), and now their citizens are paying the price. According to several studies, millions will remain uninsured, and on the order of 7,000 people a year will die that wouldn't have had those states expanded Medicaid (BillMoyers.com - Study Shows the Madness of States Refusing to Expand Medicaid).

What's especially frustrating is the way the Affordable Care Act came about. If you do follow that link to my previous article, you'll see mention of many of the falsehoods, misinformation, and propaganda that came out of the right wing when the ACA was being debated. There wasn't the type of constructive bipartisan debate that could have made the law better. Hopefully now that the law's already on the books, Congress and the Senate can focus on ways to improve it.

Further into Carson's article, he wrote a paragraph that, while not really terribly important to his larger point, typifies the way the right wing romanticizes the past.

Those are the values that allowed a ragtag army during the American Revolution to defeat the most powerful military force on earth. They did not possess a superior fighting force or ingenious strategies, but they did hold strong beliefs, for which they were willing to die, while the British soldiers were just following orders. That same kind of conviction today can lead us to become informed voters and exercise the powers vested in us courageously.

Yes, the founding fathers had strong beliefs. But don't forget the American alliances with France and Spain and the additional support from the Netherlands (Wikipedia). There were also the other wars in the Caribbean and Florida by those countries that divided British efforts, keeping the British from focusing the full of their military strength on the 13 colonies (more info - U.S. History Scene - The American Revolution: A Very European Ordeal). Don't take this the wrong way - I'm very glad that the group that would eventually become the U.S. won the war and was able to found a country committed to Enlightenment ideals, but it's a little naïve to credit America's victory to their convictions while ignoring all the international support.

I suppose that's it for this entry. Like I already wrote, Carson's article was so scattershot that it's hard to pick a single topic to respond to, and I don't really want to turn this into a paragraph for paragraph rebuttal. At any rate, aside from a few platitudes, I can't say that I particularly agree with the overall sentiment of this article, either.

Summary on RealBenCarson.com: A 'We the People' Moment For A 'Can-Do' Nation

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst


Continue to Part 4 - Ebola


*Of course, you can question the wisdom of employer provided health insurance. Personally, I think it's a bit of a weird system. I buy my own auto and life insurance - why is health insurance different? With the current law, it's led to unintended consequences like employers reducing employee hours to get out of providing health insurance, and it opens up cases like the Hobby Lobby affair, where employees are denied basic services because their employer doesn't like those services. But going away from employer provided health insurance would be a huge change, and would likely take many years for things to settle out (for example, how much should people's salaries go up if their employers quit paying for their insurance).

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 2 - Religious Privilege

Ben Carson I've begun a series to take a closer look at Ben Carson, and the main method I've chosen is to read articles that he himself has written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

The first entry in this series was mostly an introduction and some comments on Carson's troubling views on evolution (based on an interview). Today, I'm going tackle the first of the articles, which is an example of religious privilege (similar to the privilege Carson wanted in the (Navy Bible Kerfuffle).

The article is one Carson wrote for the Washington Times, Houston's First Amendment abuse. If you'd believe what Carson wrote, this would be a case of stifling free speech and religious freedom.

The recent, questionably unconstitutional moves by the City Council of Houston to subpoena the sermons of five area ministers as well as internal correspondences dealing with social issues, should have the American Civil Liberties Union and everyone else who believes in free speech and religious freedom up in arms.

But in reality, this to me is an example of the privilege religion gets in the U.S., not having to play by the same rules as every other organization. Snopes, as usual, has a pretty good summary of the specifics of this case, Houston Hustle. Various right wing groups were trying to organize a petition to challenge the recent HERO law passed in Houston. They needed 17,259 signatures to get their initiative placed on the ballot. While they had 50,000 signatures, the city rejected most of them as invalid for various reasons, and the initiative fell short of the threshold. Once they learned of this decision, the opponents of HERO filed a lawsuit against the city. As part of gathering evidence for the lawsuit, the city has subpoenaed sermons and other materials from various ministers. The reason for this, in the words of city attorney, David Feldman, is, "All officials want to know is what kinds of instructions the pastors gave out with respect to collecting petition signatures, and whether what they said agrees with what they're arguing in court while appealing the referendum." Unfortunately, public outcry against the subpoenas was so great that the city dropped them.

Perhaps the subpoenas are overly broad, but they do have a legitimate legal purpose, in trying to determine if the claims in the lawsuit are factual or not. Churches should not be above the law, and should not be able to hide behind the First Amendment to break the law. The city should have a means of investigation to determine if what the churches are claiming in their lawsuit is a lie.

But that's not the way Carson sees it. Take a look at how he sees the issue.

We as Americans must guard every aspect of our Constitution and recognize when it is being threatened. One of the great dangers in America today is extreme intolerance in the name of tolerance. For example, in this Houston case, it is presupposed that the pastors in question may have said something that was objectionable to the homosexual community.

The subpoenas were not because the pastors may have insulted homosexuals, but as I already pointed out, an attempt to determine if the churches are being honest in their lawsuit.

Although city attorneys said that they weren't interested in whether or not the churches were violating their tax-exempt status (it's not within their jurisdiction), I think that this issue should have received much more legal attention. This issue of free speech on the pulpit has certainly received a lot of attention in the articles on this issue, including Carson's.

Churches almost always file as (or simply default to) 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations. Part of the law regarding 501(c)(3) nonprofits is that they're not allowed to engage in overt political activities (About.com - Can Nonprofits Engage in Political Activity?). This applies to any organization that wants to have 501(c)(3) status, from churches to Doctors Without Borders to the Girl Scouts. When ministers want to preach politics from the pulpit, they're violating this law, and risk losing their 501(c)(3) status. It's not that the ministers don't have free speech - but churches don't get to file as that particular type of non-profit if their ministers are going to engage in political speech on church time. Of course, the ministers are free to say whatever they want when not on church time, and like I said, it's the same rules for every other 501(c)(3) charity.

And this isn't the first instance of churches escaping consequences for breaking this law. There's a movement, Pulpit Freedom Sunday, where pastors across the country openly flout this law (N.Y. Times - The Political Pulpit), but because of the special treatment churches get, the IRS has yet to go after these criminals. Just imagine if a modern day Al Capone were to found a church as a front for their organization. They really would be untouchable.

The solution for churches who want to engage in political activity is simple - don't file as a 501(c)(3). But unfortunately, many of these churches want special treatment instead of following the same rules as everybody else (and for the most part, they're getting that special treatment).

To give Carson some credit, the middle portion of his article wasn't too bad. He made some good points about tolerance, open conversation, and free speach. However, in the context of the Houston issue that prompted the article, those points seem out of place. They would have seemed more fitting in an example where people's free speach actually was being suppressed.

The issue in Houston was a city government trying to investigate claims that various churches made in a lawsuit. The city wouldn't have any jurisdiction over the churches' tax exempt statuses, at any rate. But this case clearly shows churches getting special treatment in two ways - first by blocking any investigation into claims they've made relevant to the lawsuit, and second by so egregiously violating tax law without even being investigated at all. Carson can try to claim this is an issue of free speech and religious freedom, but it really seems to be a case of religious privilege.

Summary on RealBenCarson.com: Houston's First Amendment Abuse

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst


Continue to Part 3 - Healthcare & Romanticizing the Past

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Senate Vote - Republicans Still Don't Accept Human Caused Global Warming

Global WarmingIn light of the potential environment impacts that the Keystone Pipeline may have, as well as Republican's notorious refusal to accept anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) global warming (AGW), a Democratic senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, proposed an amendment to the Keystone Pipeline legislation. His amendment was for a resolution that stated "it is the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax." This resolution was overwhelmingly passed (98-1), which has made many headlines and has a few people saying Republicans may finally, slowly, be coming around on this issue. But the way it all came about leaves me far more pessimistic - I don't see any indication that Republicans have shifted to accepting global warming, let alone human caused global warming.

First of all is the wording of the resolution. It speaks only of climate change, not warming. Granted, many people have begun referring to global warming as climate change because the actual changes to the climate are far reaching and complex, and don't necessarily translate to increased temperatures everywhere. But the phenomenon is being driven by greenhouse gases and an increase to the average temperature of the earth. But denialists can easily parse Whitehouse's proposal and say that it simply means changes, not necessarily warming.

Further, Whitehouse's resolution says nothing about the causes of global warming. This leaves open another standard denialist trope - that since we know that climate changes due to natural cycles and other causes, that the current changes are natural.

Well, these two loopholes are exactly the strategy the Republicans took. James Inhofe, one of the most vocal denialists in the Senate, voiced his support for the bill as follows (source - Newsmax).

"Climate is changing, and climate has always changed, and always will, there's archaeological evidence of that, there's biblical evidence of that, there's historic evidence of that, it will always change," Inhofe said.

"The hoax is that there are some people that are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful that they can change climate. Man can't change climate."

So, not only did Inhofe dodge the issue of warming by calling it just climate change, he flat out denied that human activities could have any effect on climate.

A bit later in the day, another Democratic senator, Brian Schatz, introduced another amendment that added in that humans were "significantly responsible" for climate change. Of course, this was too much for most Republicans. This amendment failed by a 50-49 vote, with all of the no votes coming from Republicans, and all but five of the yes votes coming from Democrats and an independent. Since the Republican party is so overwhelmingly anti-science on this issue, I suppose it's worth calling attention to the five who actually supported Schatz's amendment - Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, and Mark Kirk. For a full list of how all the senators voted (and to check on your own state's senators), check out the article on Wired, Here Are All the Senators Who Do and Don't Believe in Human-Caused Climate Change.

It's so damn frustrating that Republicans are so anti-reality on an issue with such dire consequences. Global warming is real, humans are primarily responsible, and unless we do something soon, adaptation is going to be very expensive and painful, and there's going to be a lot of suffering that could have been avoided. The fact that we have at least two years of a Republican controlled House and Senate doesn't give me much hope that anything will be accomplished before the next election.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Tragic Death of a Girl due to Alternative Medicine & Religious Beliefs

Makayla SaultYou've probably heard of this by now, but just in case you haven't, here's a quick summary. Makayla Sault, an 11-year-old First Nation girl from Ontario had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Doctors said that with chemotherapy, she had 75% odds of surviving the disease. After 11 weeks of chemo, Makayla had a dream where Jesus came to her and told her she'd been cured and that the chemo was killing her body. She decided she didn't want to do the chemo any longer, and her parents, both pastors, agreed. Along with supposedly traditional treatments*, they took her to an alternative medicine clinic in Florida, where "The girl's mother said her daughter received cold laser therapy, Vitamin C injections and a strict raw food diet, among other therapies at Hippocrates." Tragically, but unsurprisingly, Makayla died.

A good summary is available from CBC News, Makayla Sault, girl who refused chemo for leukemia, dies. This is the article I quoted above. Another summary, though not quite as good, is available from The Globe and Mail, Ontario First Nations girl taken off chemotherapy has died.

This whole affair is so tragic, yet it was most likely avoidable. Treatments for ALL have been getting better and better. Whereas a diagnosis of ALL was a near death sentence back in the '60s, patients receiving treatment now have survival rates of around 90% (more info - Pharyngula: Support cancer research now!). Had Makayla continued with the chemotherapy, she would most likely still be alive today.

Some people see this case as controversial, having to respect the rights of the parents and their traditional beliefs (even if the clinic they went to was practicing modern quack therapies). I couldn't disagree more. There should be no controversy here at all - this was clearly a case of either abuse or neglect.

On Jerry Coyne's website, he wrote an article discussing this issue, Canadian government kills First Nations girl out of misguided respect for faith. I got a bit involved in the comments, and left a reply to one of the people that sees this as a controversial case, which I've decided to copy here since it summarizes my thoughts on this well.

Children are not property of their parents. They are their own individual people, but without fully developed brains and the rational thinking and maturity that goes along with that. That is why parents have a duty to properly raise children until the children reach a sufficient level of maturity to face the world on their own. Parents should have latitude only in so much as they are acting in the best interests of the children. Once a parent's actions jeopardize or cause harm to the child, they've gone well beyond any plausible latitude.

Governments have the responsibility of protecting citizens, whether the citizen is being threatened by a stranger in a dark alley or by their own parents abusing them. Cases like this of withholding appropriate medical care are among the worst cases of abuse, since they result in the death of the child.

Children do not have sufficient maturity, experience, or knowledge to make well thought out decisions on life and death issues. Their wishes should be considered, and given increasing weight as the child matures and approaches adulthood, but those wishes should not trump the judgment of mature, well informed adults (usually the parents, but the state if the parents are incompetent).

Of course, there will always be grey areas. When does spanking become physical abuse? When does lecturing become verbal abuse? When does opting out of pills become criminal neglect? That's why we have judges and the court system. If interpreting the law were easy, we'd just have clerks administering penalties rather than having judges.

I do feel sympathy for the parents, not only for the loss of their daughter, but for the circumstances that led them to become so deluded that they thought a snake oil salesman in Florida offered more hope for Makayla than evidence based medicine. But that sympathy won't bring Makayla back. And there are other children in similar circumstances. This is tragic, and those children's lives are worth more than the parents' feelings.

I am extremely angry at people like Judge Gethin Edward, who had the chance to save these children, yet caved to cultural sensitivities. Was respect for traditional medicine worth this girl's life? How do you sleep at night knowing you sentenced her to death?**

Sadly, at least one more child, known publicly only as J.J., is almost surely going to die due to nearly identical circumstances. How many children must die before this situation will be changed?

Makayla Sault
Makayla Sault, 2004-2015

Image Source: CBC (with video)


*Although most of the articles I've seen mention 'traditional medicine', I haven't seen any discussion of actual traditional treatments. It seems that the main treatments were from the alternative medicine clinic in Florida.

**Judge Edward ruled in the case of J.J., not Makayla, but it was that decision that set the precedent for Makayla's case. Additionally, unless there is some last minute miracle, J.J. will almost surely die, as well.

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