The Barbershop has re-located

The proprietor has moved the shop to ChicagoNow, a Chicago Tribune site that showcases some of the best bloggers in the Chicago area. You can logo on to the Barbershop home page here. The ChicagoNow home page is here.

You'll still be able to post comments with the same ease as in this location. The proprietor also will keep this web site alive if you wish to review old posts.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Ted Kennedy: The ghost of McCarthy past

Are you now or were you ever a member of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton? Are you now or were you ever a reader or subscriber of that group’s magazine, “Prospect?”

After watching today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court, you can almost hear the ghost of the infamous Sen. Joe McCarthy pursing communists during the Red Scare paranoia of the 1950s.

McCarthy’s anti-communist hunts destroyed careers, friendship and lives. Those who had the courage to oppose him are celebrated even today.

“I have here in my hand a list of the names of …,” the demagogic McCarthy frequently declared, proclaiming that he had uncovered commies in the Army, State Department and in the shadowy niches and crannies of Washington.

For the majority of Americans who weren’t around for those horrible times, you can’t fully appreciate his loathsome behavior. Simply reading “suspect” materials or having them in your home was sufficient reason to be investigated. Any connection, however slight, with the “wrong” people or groups was enough to put you on someone’s blacklist.

I was around for the Army-McCarthy hearings, which was the senator’s vehicle for ruining lives under cover of the law. In honesty, I cannot recall since then any performance that has come anywhere close to this outrage—until witnessing the nauseating behavior today of Sen. Ted Kennedy and his Democratic colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Not since the 1950s, have I witnessed such a vile use of “guilt by association” for political advantage.

In the words of Joseph Welch, the Army’s counsel, after McCarthy had destroyed his latest victim: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator.”

McCarthy tried to interrupt, determined to continue on his destructive path: “Let’s, let’s…”

Welch, in words that entered political history cut him off: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

No, Kennedy and his crew don’t.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Losing our heads over bogus claims

By Dennis Byrne

Chicago Tribune, January 9, 2006

It might make a good horror movie: global avian flu meets global warming. Sort of like King Kong meets Godzilla.

We are warned that at least one of these global catastrophes surely will get us. Likely both. On this, we have the word of the infallible: scientists, journalists and activists whose jobs are to knock ignorance and complacency out of us. The only question is which threat will get us first: a worldwide influenza pandemic spread by birds, or Earth flambe brought on by America's greedy refusal to cut greenhouse gases.

Maybe the flu and global warming alarms are warranted. But notwithstanding claims of certitude by our minders, how is a public, made skeptical by so many false warnings and promises, to know if they are right? Can we trust every warning, or promise of a cure, that's made?

Let's ask the renowned South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk, who created, with a hyperventilating media, a worldwide sensation by fabricating tailored embryonic stem cells that were supposed to cure, well, just about everything. Or maybe we shouldn't bother him; he's momentarily busy dodging convincing charges that his pioneering "successes" were fake.

This one is on science, because Hwang's work was "peer reviewed," giving it the scientific stamp of approval. But the media don't entirely escape blame; they went wild publishing the claims, as they have typically hyped every supposed "advance" in embryonic stem cell research. In fact, there are few of them and, worse, the media have more or less irresponsibly ignored the more tangible and substantial advances by less controversial "adult" stem cell therapy.

So whom can we trust?

Maybe this can help. It's time for 2005's "Biggest Science Reporting Flubs," awarded by the Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University. STATS is a Washington-based think tank that tracks scientifically misleading myths and rumors and annually highlights the worst examples the media inflict on the public. They are:

1. Meth mania: The media's flipping out over "America's most dangerous drug" is challenged by research showing that methamphetamine use among high school students has declined 28 percent in the last five years, that meth users only slightly outnumber crack users and that meth addicts recover at the same rate as other drug addicts.

2. Poison popcorn: ABC's "Good Morning America" blew it with its "exclusive" investigation claiming that the Food and Drug Administration has opened a probe into the supposed cancer risks of a chemical whose presence is three times the recommended FDA levels in popcorn bags, fast-food boxes and candy wrappers. But there's no FDA investigation, the agency doesn't have recommended levels and such chemicals are not considered unsafe. Oops.

3. Gender-bending babies: USA Today reported a study that allegedly linked phthalates--a family of chemicals that make plastic flexible--to deformities in male infants. After the report panicked parents nationwide, an expert government panel was unable to validate the "findings." The media, of course, ignored the report.

4. Dazed and confused teens: A new "identity disorder" has descended on teens increasingly using drugs, booze and sex to escape reality, proclaimed The New York Times. Except that a University of Michigan long-term study found teens actually are doing less of the bad behaviors.

5. French fry fright: A California lawsuit demanding McDonald's and Frito-Lay warn consumers that their products contain acrylamide, allegedly linked to cancer and birth defects, inspired a wave of media hysteria. Which overlooked a major study that found that acrylamide might lower, not raise, cancer rates.

6. Toothpaste terror: Supermarkets began pulling toothpaste off their shelves after panicky reports that an anti-bacterial ingredient in it could lead to depression, liver problems and cancer. The American Dental Society responded that the effect occurred experimentally only when the ingredient was placed in pure form in very hot and heavily chlorinated water.

7. Media gorge on obesity. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report suggesting that a little extra weight may not always be dangerous--which the media trumpeted as proof that the `food police' were dieting us to death. But some of the results were statistically insignificant, and even the CDC didn't claim they were conclusive."

It's not my contention that the number of misreported or overly hyped warnings outnumber the legitimate ones. But how many are too many?

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Email: dennis@dennisbyrne.net

Thursday, January 05, 2006

It's dark in here.

Can anyone explain why the investigators on CSI never turn on the lights when they're at an in-door crime scene? Are they stupid, or do they just like to stumble around in the dark?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Liberal hypocrisy

Hard lesson about endangering lives
For all of those hypocrites intent on ferreting out traitors

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune, January 2, 2006

"This is one of the most reckless and nasty things I've seen in all my years of government." --Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), regarding an intelligence leak that has endangered national security.

The leak, Schumer said, has "undermined our national security," and if the facts are true, "it is clear that a crime has been committed."

Schumer was not alone. Other senators, including Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), lined up to demand that the Bush administration, Congress and Dick Tracy's crime stoppers ferret out the traitor and hand him over for caning. Because of this kind of leak, they warned, someone could die.

But the leak that drew their foregoing ire wasn't the one about the warrantless wiretapping of people in America who chat with Al Qaeda. It was directed at whoever disclosed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, in an alleged White House conspiracy to damage the reputations of the opponents of the Iraq war. Among the many things this might tell us is that Schumer doesn't regard preventing another terrorist
attack to be as important as a Plame outing.

This kind of hypocrisy and selective outrage isn't new to either party: Republicans didn't like special prosecutors, independent counsels and the like when they were probing Republican scandals, such as Watergate and Iran-contra. Some decided they liked them after all when they went after President Bill Clinton. Now they don't like them again. And vice versa for Democrats.

But one party's hypocrisy doesn't cancel another's. Any leak that breaks the law and endangers national security is grievously wrong. I said so in an October 2003 column criticizing the Bush administration for stalling an investigation of the Plame leak. But now a strange silence has overcome Democrats and much of the media. From them there are no more, as far as I can tell, passionate denunciations of this leak. No more letters to the U.S. attorney general urging an investigation; no more calls for congressional hearings; no more berating journalists for being stooges of leakers; no more allegations of criminality. The only calls to be heard from Democrats are for congressional hearings on the surveillance program, hearings that our enemies will find useful.

From this, we must assume that they are more worried about risking the life of one CIA agent than of a couple of hundred million Americans.

Among them is Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who put on one whale of an arm-waving portrayal of Foghorn Leghorn on the Senate floor. In a statement later, Byrd slipped out of his comic role by irresponsibly accusing President Bush of assuming "unchecked power" that is "reserved only for kings and potentates."

Other Democrats routinely refer to the surveillance as if it were randomly directed at "Americans," without mentioning that the surveillance, as far as we know, is of people who are confabbing with Al Qaeda. This crucial omission is the result of either ignorance or demagoguery. Some in the media, in turn, routinely allow Democrats to get away with this. Or grotesquely compare wiretapping with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Or praise the New York Times for its wonderful "scoop," forgetting all about the thousands of stories they did casting a dark shadow on Bush for the Plame leak.

The hysteria generated by partisans and media has overcome reason, facts and the law. Never mind that John Schmidt, associate attorney general under Clinton, explained in an informative Chicago Tribune op-ed piece why Bush has the legal and constitutional authority to approve the taps. That "every president since FISA's [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978] passage has asserted that he retained the power to go beyond the act's terms." Never mind that other legal scholars, on a non-partisan basis, have said that whatever FISA says, the president retains that power under the Constitution. That four federal appeals courts have upheld the president's power to wiretap to gain foreign intelligence--which the present case is about--without warrant.

Reputable scholars, lawyers and judges all agree that this issue is complex, with finely tuned arguments and complicated precedents on both sides. None of them is so reckless as the Byrds and media commentators who state, without reflection and with partisan purpose, that such wiretaps are illegal and unconstitutional.

dennis@dennisbyrne.net

Intelligent Design and Science

What's so scary about intelligent design?

By Dennis Byrne,
Chicago Tribune, Dec. 19, 2005

Here is a question for scientists who ridicule intelligent design, yet say they believe in God: When you pray, is it to a God who just sat around and watched the universe spring into existence all by itself?

Or did God give himself something to do, and thus, here we are?

It's hard to envision an all-perfect and almighty God who just likes to watch. But that's the kind of God that the critics of intelligent design would impose on us. Scientists, of course, would vehemently deny that they are in any way trying to tell people of faith what kind of God they should believe in. But they need to honestly admit that this battle between evolution and intelligent design is a two-way street:

People of faith should not be directing scientists how to do their work and scientists ought to be more thoughtful and respectful about how their work complicates or complements the world of belief. Science as well as theology, philosophy and religion have legitimate claims to exploring and discovering answers to the Big Question: How did we get here, and why?

Some things science just can't explain. Such as the mystery of how a perfect creator turned himself into one of his less-than perfect creations--a man--but still remained perfect. Based on faith alone, millions of people celebrate that inexplicable miracle on Christmas.

Scientists, in fact, can't explain a lot of things, and that's no knock on scientists. It's because a lot of answers cannot meet the scientific standards of observation, experimentation, replication and verification. But it's also no reason that any subject of scientific interest cannot also be explored by theology, philosophy and religion. Yet the fight between intelligent design and evolution is popularly framed as an effort by theologians, philosophers and the faithful to impose their unscientific conclusions on science. Perhaps a few dominators do, but most of us do feel the need to reconcile what science and faith tell us--about our world and us.

The reality today is that when theology, philosophy or religion dares to examine the Big Question, its practitioners find themselves increasingly bumping heads with scientific claims of exclusive competence. This is wrong. Neither science nor theology has the right to tell the other to butt out of this quest. In this, no one has the right to demand that the study of intelligent design be kept out of schools. Out of the science class, perhaps, but not out of all classrooms.

Centuries ago, science on one hand and philosophy, theology and religion on the other were separated--to the relief of those who correctly believed that the church had gone too far in using dogma to block scientific advances. Exploring reality through the prism of science requires one form of knowledge, while discovering and refining our understanding of God and his presence in the world require another. Now that pendulum has swung too far the other way, to the point that science and philosophy, and
theology and religion are regarded, by some, as mortal enemies. The idea of unified knowledge has come on hard times. Few people are exploring how the two approaches can help each other. That science is rushing toward a unified theory that "explains everything" is not a reason to abandon non-scientific ways to approach a comprehensive understanding of everything.

This requires an admission that there is a higher level of knowledge beyond science alone or theology alone. Vast areas of knowledge are open to those who realize that just as a branch of physics examines the "first principle of everything," so does metaphysics. Or that cosmology and theology are on the same coin,
just on different sides.

We should approach the Big Question with awe and humility, not ridicule and self-certainty. With excitement and optimism, instead of division and the kind of cynicism that rejects the possibility of parallel or complementary explanations.

To leave students without a perspective of how philosophy, theology and religion help bring us to an understanding of "all things," is as wrong as denying students the understanding that science brings.

Philosophers and theologians may--must, actually--rigorously examine the scientific theory that random chance explains everything. A denial of that right and responsibility rises from the same spirit of arrogant certitude that haunted Galileo.

dennis@dennisbyrne.net

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Take a bow.

Just saw a Green Bay Packer defensive back flex his muscles for the crowd after knocking the stuffing out of a Seattle receiver. The only problem: the receiver caught a pass for the first down. This has gotten out of hand: A defender strutting his stuff like he had just done something great, when the other team advanced the ball. What is it with these jamokes?