Media Bias?

Two consecutive stories on NPR’s “Morning Edition” Friday took very different approaches to the issue of medical risk and scientific proof. First Snigdha Prakash reported on a new study showing that heart problems from Vioxx can last up to a year after you stop taking the drug. She quoted only critics of Vioxx and gave no indication that there might be another side to the story. She noted that Merck has won three trials and lost three so far; she didn’t remind us of the famous quote from Merck’s highest-profile loss:

Jurors who voted against Merck said much of the science sailed right over their heads. “Whenever Merck was up there, it was like wah, wah, wah,” said juror John Ostrom, imitating the sounds Charlie Brown’s teacher makes in the television cartoon. “We didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.” (Merck Loss Jolts Drug Giant, Industry, August 22, 2005, The Wall Street Journal)

In the next story Joanne Silberner reported on concerns that four California women “had died after taking the two-drug abortion pill combination, Mefipristone, sometimes called RU486, and Misoprostol….The deaths appeared to be a horrific side effect of the drugs.” But Silberner immediately noted that “it’s not likely to be that simple.” She quoted experts who cautioned against jumping to conclusions. She noted that the numbers were small. We need to know much more before we could assume there was a problem with these abortion drugs.

It was a good example of careful, cautious reporting. But why are journalists seemingly much more cautious in reporting medical risks involving abortion than in reporting other kinds of risks? There are plenty of critics of the “junk science” involved in the Vioxx stories; why aren’t they interviewed in Vioxx stories? The numbers were small in the Vioxx study, as in the case of the abortion drugs, but that fact was dismissed in one report and emphasized in the other.

Cato’s Jerry Taylor noticed something similar in a Wall Street Journal column 11 years ago (January 3, 1995; not online). He noted that the Journal of the National Cancer Institute

caused quite a stir by publishing an epidemiological study suggesting that women who have abortions are 50% more likely to develop breast cancer than women who do not….”Not so fast,” countered epidemiologists; a 1.5 risk ratio (as epidemiologists put it) “is not strong enough to call induced abortion a risk factor for breast cancer.”

Taylor agreed that a 1.5 risk ratio is below the appropriate level of concern. But he wondered why “the same risk ratio that was so widely pooh-poohed by scientists as insignificant and inconclusive when it comes to abortion was deemed by the very same scientists an intolerable health menace when it comes to secondhand smoke. Actually, that’s not quite true. The 1.3 risk factor for a single abortion was significantly greater than the really hard to detect 1.19 risk ratio for intensive, 40-year, day-in-day-out pack-a-day exposure to secondhand smoke (as figured by the EPA).”

Taylor worried that too many people fail to understand statistical probabilities or assume that correlation equals causation. He also wondered whether even scientists are susceptible to a political bias against smoking or for a woman’s right to choose. How much more true that must be for journalists.

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NSA: Coda

Let me make two brief and (I hope) final points in response to Roger Pilon’s post of earlier today.

First, Roger asserts that the executive and legislative branches would not be “co-equal” if Congress is permitted “to restrict the president’s powers, as with FISA.” “Congress,” he adds, would then be “supreme, the president its mere agent.” Not true. Before any restrictive measure can become law, it must be passed by Congress and signed by the president. FISA was of course signed by President Carter. Neither successive presidents nor successive legislatures are required to re-validate previously enacted, unexpired statutes. Moreover, FISA was implicitly re-signed by George W. Bush, who helped craft the FISA amendments that are included within the PATRIOT Act and prescribe surveillance warrants.

Second, Roger notes that Congress can always avail itself of the “power of the purse … and simply cut off funds for projects.” My response is threefold: (1) A constitutional regime that would allow Congress to eliminate a project altogether, but not restrict a project, is quite simply incoherent – especially if the project arises, as Roger insists, out of an inherent presidential power. (2) The NSA surveillance program is secret to all but a few members of Congress. Accordingly, Congress might have to de-fund the entire NSA in order to pinpoint and de-fund one program, the scope and function of which is mostly unknown. (3) Even if Congress could de-fund the program itself, that would throw the baby out with the bathwater. Republicans and Democrats alike conjecture that much of the NSA program may be necessary and effective, albeit illegal, in combating terrorism. The responsible remedy is not to de-fund an essential program, but either to change its implementation to comply with the law, or change the law to authorize the program.

Border Enforcement without Reform is Doomed to Fail

The news media are playing up President Bush’s proposal, to be unveiled in an Oval Office speech tonight, to send National Guard troops to stop illegal immigration across our 2,000-mile border with Mexico. The real news is that the president and the Senate are about to work together to pass real immigration reform, including a new temporary worker program and a path to legalization for the millions of undocumented workers already here. The Cato Institute laid out the intellectual argument for such an approach in two major studies, Willing Workers and Backfire at the Border.

The large majority of workers here illegally have come for the same reasons immigrants have come to our shores throughout our history, to build a better future for themselves and their families–and to help us build a stronger U.S. economy in the process. Our economy continues to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs each year for low-skilled workers, while the supply of native-born Americans willing to fill those jobs continues to shrink. The American workforce is getting older and better educated. Yet our immigration system has no legal channel for a peaceful, hardworking person from Mexico or other countries to enter our country legally to fill those jobs.

Two decades of ramped-up enforcement have failed to fix the problem. We’ve increased spending on border enforcement 10-fold, we’ve built walls for miles into the desert, and we’ve raided hundreds of U.S. business from coast to coast. Yet the number and inflow of illegal workers just keeps growing. We need an immigration system that reflects the realities of American society and the American economy. A program to legalize millions of workers would allow the U.S. government to concentrate its enforcement on the real criminals and terrorists trying to sneak into our country.

It’s good news that President Bush and a majority of Senators seem to understand that enforcement without reform is doomed to fail.

Can We Negotiate with Odious Regimes?

It appears that in the case of Libya, the answer is yes.

After more than twenty years, the US is restoring normal diplomatic relations with the regime of Muammar Khaddafi. Well before the Iraq War, the US government had opened a diplomatic dialogue with Tripoli to work toward dismantling its WMD programs. The two reached an agreement, and have now normalized relations. This notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Khaddafi’s government remains rather ugly and reprehensible in ways too numerous to count.

It’s a lesson we should keep in mind, particularly with respect to certain other US relationships in the news today.  We can negotiate with odious regimes.

And sometimes, good can come of it.

NSA déjà vu again

With his usual precision, my colleague Bob Levy, in his latest NSA post, has zeroed in on the basic question I put to him: “How can Congress, by mere statute, restrict an inherent power of a co-equal branch of government?” He grants that the president has inherent powers; but so does Congress, he adds, and if Congress expressly restricts the president’s powers, as with FISA, that “is persuasive when deciding whether the president has overreached.”
 
Not so fast. The problem with that is that the branches are then no longer “co-equal.” Rather, Congress is supreme, the president its mere agent—precisely the point I made in our recent debate when I spoke of Congress’s post-Vietnam rewrite of the Constitution in foreign affairs, much as the New Deal Congress did with domestic arrangements.
 
Bob points more precisely, however, to the Necessary and Proper Clause as the source of Congress’s power over the president. But that clause—to reduce a very complex issue to its essence—was written, in the context of the Articles of Confederation, to enable Congress to give effect to its and the other branches’ enumerated powers. As Chief Justice Marshall said in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the clause authorizes means that are “really calculated to effect any of the objects entrusted to the government,” like surveillance for national security purposes. When that power is used “improperly” to restrict the inherent power of another branch, serious separation-of-powers issues arise.
 
Congress does have a power to accomplish that end, however: It’s the power of the purse. It can simply cut off funds for projects—yet even here there are separation-of-powers questions that courts have never resolved. Given that the public seems to support the NSA program by 2 to 1, however, Congress is not likely to do that. This leaves us with Fourth Amendment issues, and as I said last time, that’s the business of the courts.
 
Two quick final points on Bob’s most recent post: First, the “parade of horribles” he presents—detention, tribunals, etc.—raises complex treaty and international law issues that are quite different, requiring separate analysis. Second, the animating sentiment at the time of the founding may have been fear of executive power—return of the king. By the time of the framing, however, after 11 years of experience with self-government, the Framers had a far more subtle understanding. As Madison put it in the Virginia ratifying convention, “The sword is in the hands of the British King. The purse is in the hands of the Parliament. It is so in America, as far as any analogy can exist.”

No Courage Behind Global Warming Convictions

The House is expected to vote as early as Wednesday on a resolution that decries the dangerous threat posed by rising industrial greenhouse gas emissions. The resolution calls for an emissions cap on greenhouse gases as long as (i) the cap doesn’t harm the U.S. economy, and (ii) U.S. trading partners agree to live under a similar cap.

While the Greens are quite exited that the GOP seems prepared to go along with this, these things are called “resolutions” for a reason - they echo promises made on New Year’s Eve. In short, it’s nothing but a statement that the Congress thinks that this would be a good idea, but that they are unprepared (at the moment) to do anything about it.

Does this represent progress for the enviros? Not really. Show me an emissions cap that won’t have a negative effect on the economy and I’ll show you an alterantive reality where up is down, black is white, and rivers are made of liquid chocolate. Now, depending upon the nature of the cap and the regulations attached thereto, the negative economic impact might be very modest or rather signficant. But ruling out caps that have any negative economic impact is to essentially rule out a cap.

Frank O’Donnell, head of the Left’s Clean Air Watch, was not too far off the mark when he was quoted in the subscription trade journal Energy & Environment Daily this morning as noting that “The way [the resolution] is worded, you’d have to be a kook to be opposed to it.” Indeed, who would object to what is in effect an insurance policy with no premium?

If the Greens really think that global warming is serious, they are demonstrating both political and intellectual cowardice by backing pablum like this. All this resolution would accomplish is to allow politicians to claim environmental virtue from empty political gestures.

So why would the enviros provide an easy out for politicians who want to appear Green but not do anything real to advance the Green agenda? Because it’s the best the enviros can do right now. That speaks volumes. This is a resolution that advertises Green political weakness, not Green political strength.

The resolution, then, is pretty meaningless. That having been said, you don’t have to be a “kook” to be skeptical about all the “doom, doom I say” hand-wringing that litters the resolution. That is, unless you think a Vice President of the U.N.’s oft cited International Panel on Climate Change is a kook. And if you do, what does that say about the merit of that much-worshiped body of scientific experts?

Against the “Happy State”

Writing last week in the Telegraph, University of Kent sociologist Frank Furedi argues that “Back in the 1940s and ’50s, the big idea was the Welfare State. Today it is the Happy State.” Furedi, noting that there is more to a good life than mere feeling, is skeptical of the push to apply “happiness research” to politics and policy:

In reality, neither experts nor clever policies can make people genuinely happy. Freud may have been a little cynical when he suggested that his objective was to “convert neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness”. But he understood that true happiness was an ideal that we pursue but rarely achieve. Nor is that a problem. A good life is not always a happy one. People are often justified in being unhappy about their circumstances and surroundings. Discontent and ambition have driven humanity to confront and overcome the challenges they faced. That is why people like the Controller in Brave New World want us live on a diet of “feelies” and “scent organs”. That is also why we should be suspicious of experts who seek to colonise our internal life.

It’s a thoughtful piece, worth reading.

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