Wednesday, October 14, 2009


This is a slightly more inebriated post than usual... bear with me.

Tonight I attended a presentation called “An Inconvenient Truth About Immigration” where the presenter laid out a case for reform of immigration laws and a reconsideration of the narrative of America’s history as the melting pot. One of the first points she made was that African slaves were not the only involuntary immigrants to the United States; hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were annexed when the U.S. annexed half of Mexico as a result of the 1848 war, and Puerto Rico and its inhabitants became “immigrants” later when the U.S. acquired the territory from a war with Spain. Interesting to think about, for sure.

To the rest of her presentation: Her focus was on Mexican immigrants, but she framed the issue of “illegal” Mexican immigration through the historical background of immigration policy in the U.S.: Chinese immigrants were first welcomed when cheap labor was needed during the western expansion in the mid-19th century (and expanding slavery was not possible) and then barred from citizenship for forty years while white Europeans immigrated in record numbers during the same time period; Japanese immigrants were welcomed when Hawaii was a fledgling territory and (again) when labor was needed in the west, and then deemed “enemy aliens” during World War II; and so on. Import labor when needed; deport when not.

As I understand it, from the fifties through the early nineties, de facto U.S. policy on Mexican immigration was one of a “revolving door”. It was understood that most Mexican immigrants were temporary – particularly, seasonal – workers, who would work for a short time and return to Mexico with their earnings. The political climate shift in the mid-nineties brought a fear of Mexican immigration and forced former President Clinton into pushing restrictive measures against their entry into the country. The effect was to make immigration more dangerous and more expensive; of which, the effect was to cause Mexican immigrants to stay in the U.S. for fear of not being able to come back, and thus to bring their families with them, thus opening a huge can of worms for the ethics and economic issues relating to Mexican immigration.

So, in thinking about this, I kept coming back to the singular objection to unfettered immigration from Mexico: they’ll take our jobs/depress wages/ruin small business/etc. This objection comes politically from the left and the right (even though the right usually claims to believe in economic libertarianism). This may be the Delirium talking, but I feel like this objection boils down to a basic fear of the poor – that their poverty is contagious. A sort of: “There must be a reason the country they come from has a lower standard of living: they must not want a higher one.” I’m not sure I’m explaining this well… but, oh well. Hopefully you can read through the drunken lines.

It seems to me that there are three ways to get rich: 1) get lucky, 2) work very hard and with a lot of skill, and 3) have people work for you for less than their labor is worth (and any combination of the three). Applied to entire countries, I feel that 3) is the dominant factor, and certainly has been for much of the history of the U.S., including the present day. What is cheap is cheap because the labor is cheap; the labor is cheap because standards of living are different. Also, completely unrelated and completely related: the economics. Can anyone explain to me how we had near full employment when the economy was humming along in the late 90s, and yet illegal immigration from Mexico taking jobs away from U.S. citizens somehow suddenly caused the economy to crash after the September 11th attacks, and later, during the financial crisis and banking meltdowns of very recent history? What the hell did Mexican immigrants working for low wages have to do with any of that? Am I just drunk, or I am remembering correctly that nobody was complaining about “depressed wages” during an economic expansionary period?

One other weird thing I’ve seen in the immigration debate (I’m not sure which political windbag it came from, nor if it’s just some meme started anonymously on the internet): “I don’t want to deport them, I want to encourage self-deportation”. AKA, “Mexican immigrants only come here because we subsidize them and the schooling of their children”. Um, really? Say whaaa?

Harkening back to that huge can of worms, the DREAM Act is awesome and should be supported. Write your congresspersons.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nuking Florida?

At a showing of the movie Kilowatt Ours (a pretty cool film, I might say) at the 8th Avenue Bike Shop and Coffee House here in Gainesville, it was brought to my attention that there is a proposed nuclear power plant to be built in Levy County, about 50 miles from Gainesville, and that there is a grassroots protest movement being formed against its construction. Admittedly, what struck me in the beginning about the information presented to me was a NIMBY focus on the unsafe nature of the routine release of radiation from nuclear power plants, which went against my understanding of nuclear energy safety, and so I googled. The first link I ran into was from the National Energy Institute:, which mostly settled the safety issue for me. The average radiation exposure composition for a person living near a plant being only 1 percent from the plant; radiation being detected easily and being one of the “most studied and best understood forms of energy”; a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer finding that the risk of health effects from exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation is small; the National Academy of Sciences conducting a study which found a similar conclusion; all of these resonated with my memory of the subject and confirmed my belief that nuclear power is safe. (Also of note are the helpful links on the right side of that webpage – the Health Physics Society, in particular, has a lot of useful information regarding our interactions with radiation in the everyday, the medical field, and more.)

My firm belief is: Scientists, by and large, don’t like to be wrong. At the very least, I believe that a national organization of scientists could not possibly be made up almost entirely of shills who would collude to fudge studies to get the desired results.

When the National Institutes of Health say that childhood vaccines do not cause autism, I trust that they are not covering up data in a massive conspiracy – the studies are right there in the open, and it would be impossible to do so. When climate scientists at NASA and the world over agree that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change, I believe them. The studies are open, and it would be impossible to fudge the data without even ten percent of those eyes catching it – and rushing to be the first to publish their counter analyses. When the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued its report explaining how the fires in the World Trade Center weakened the steel in the buildings to the point where they could no longer support the structure, I believe them, because they presented a large body of evidence, which was reviewed by a large body of materials scientists and engineers from diverse fields, and because they openly published their findings. When the scientists composing the National Academy of Sciences (and virtually every biologist on Earth) agree that evolution is an observed fact and the only scientific explanation for the diversity of life past and present on this planet, I believe them – because there’s mounds of published, peer-reviewed, documented evidence.

I believe in scientific consensus for that reason first: the open evidence. It’s there for anyone to see, and it’s been seen by many brilliant eyes. But I also believe in it for another reason – a negative reason: I don’t believe in a consensus of conspiracy or incompetence. For any of those things to be true – for vaccines to be causing autism, for global warming to be a hoax, for the World Trade Center buildings to have been brought down by explosives, or for evolution to be wrong – would require a vast conspiracy among scientists, mixed with vast incompetence.

The way I feel the field of science works with regard to revolutionary, paradigm-shifting ideas that challenge consensus is this: they are sought and revered and are the way to become famous. Scientists don’t reject them on the basis of conservative philosophy, because scientists, quite on the contrary, are seeking to discover something new – even if it upsets the status quo. Rather, they accept or reject them on their merits, because those merits are their reputations. Scientists don’t get rich selling out – they get discredited by selling out (where selling out is defined as falsifying data or demonstrating incompetence by drawing unsupported conclusions in order to support the aims of industry, not practicing good science which happens to support the aims of industry).

Scientists hate to be wrong. Whether they are wrong shilling for industry or wrong cooking up a crackpot conspiracy theory about industry, their reputations will be irreparably damaged, how much so depending on the level of malfeasance and/or incompetence and not which side they are on. Large bodies of scientists hate to be wrong even more, because they represent the reputation of an entire profession of people so dependent on being right, and at the very least, rigorously honest and careful.

The pamphlet from “Nuke Florida” that I received suggests that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is basically a “front for pro-nuclear forces”, receiving 90% of its funds from companies that operate nuclear reactors. But what about the NAS? Or the National Safety Council? (See, and all of their other educational information on ionizing, non-ionizing, natural, and man-made sources of radiations, their levels, and their effects on humans. Compare the average exposure to radon radiation to the average exposure to radiation for those living near a nuclear power plant.) Are they all shills, too? Is everything a giant conspiracy? Are scientists from diverse national academies and institutes of safety and of health unanimously colluding to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, without regard to human life, because they all feel like supporting the nuclear power industry? I highly doubt it.

The point of it all being: there is some serious misinformation, malignant or not, in the “nuclear power is inherently unsafe and kills” movement. The millirem exposure for one year from a nuclear power plant for those living within 50 miles is roughly one one-hundredth that of one dental x-ray ( Of all the ionizing radiation sources, by far the most dangerous are natural, and of those, by far the most dangerous is radon. The pamphlet also claims that the NAS “reviewed hundreds of scientific articles, and concluded that there is no risk-free dose of radiation.” This statement is completely lacking context. The NAS recommended the use of what is known as a “linear no-threshold hypothesis” with regard to low-level ionizing radiation, not because of any observed health effects in properly controlled studies, but rather to be consistent with other approaches to public health policy (from the link above). The linear assumption has no scientific basis, but in proposing a linear relationship, it assigns some risk to any exposure to ionizing radiation, no matter how minute. The proposed nuclear power plant in Levy County may not be economically ideal, but aside from terrorism, it would be safe, and far less harmful to humans than a fossil fuel plant.

So, am I wrong in not opposing the Levy nuclear power plant barring unforeseen economic reasons? The way I see it, the battle against global warming is an absolutely enormous problem, and will require every effort. Yes, we need to massively reduce consumption of energy. But we also need to retire as many coal plants as possible, and nuclear power is one part of that. I sincerely hope that we as taxpayers vote with our wallets to subsidize all viable green power generating technologies while they are more “expensive” than greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuel technologies. Solar, wind, and geothermal are all very important and must become economically viable on a mass scale for the sake of our health and to avoid ecological disaster. They all need to be used – i.e., we need to reforest and slow deforesting, too, among other things. The more green power technologies we can employ, the less stress on any one resource and the greater the likelihood of success.

And then, on the other issue (perhaps the larger issue): Is it wrong to trust consensuses reached among large bodies of scientists? (Sadly, this is my only slightly philosophical question among the "hard" politics.)

I don’t really see myself as a conservative or liberal on the energy or global warming issue, but as a fan of good science. I know I have a really strong opinion on this, but I appreciate all thoughts.


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