Posts tagged ‘government’

The Conundrum of Religious Freedom for Jews

Written By

Lewis D. Eigen

The Jewish prisoner flinched at the accusations of the police officer.  Wearing a traditional white and blue Jewish prayer shawl and publicly praying was so offensive to public morality that for the sake of order in the community, the religious authorities and the police officer had to act.  He had nothing personal against the accused, but it was his job to maintain a level of public order and decorum.  So many people had been so offended by the accused that he had to act.  People took their religion very seriously.  God himself had told man how to behave, and this misguided Jew goes out in public and offends most of the serious, fundamentalist religious believers.  It was not just the clerics stirring up hate.  So many people thought that God and they were being mocked by someone who had no respect for the word of God or man’s religious traditions.

The date was November 18, 2009.  The place most of us assume was probably Saudi Arabia or Iran.  That the fundamentalist Moslem bigots would not allow a Jew to pray in public.  That is the so called law in those countries that blatantly flaunt standards of religious tolerance and commonly violate the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  But this particular gross denial of Jewish religious rights was not in those countries.  It was not even in a Moslem nation.  Nor a Christian one for that matter.  It took place in the Jewish state of Israel.  The police officers were themselves Jewish. (more…)

May 10, 2010 at 8:47 PM 3 comments

The Louisiana Oil Catatrophe and Our Scientists

 Written By Lewis D. Eigen

“What could they have been thinking?  Starting drilling a hole for oil beginning one mile beneath the surface.  If oil is struck, placing pipes, valves, sensors, connectors, one mile down, would be hard enough, but if anything went wrong–the slightest mistake, a quirk of nature–the likelihood of being able to repair it at such a depth was very low.  Surely, they knew that they were taking an enormous chance by drilling at that depth.  We just do not have the technology yet to do at that depth what we can do in 100 feet of water with human divers and engineers.  Why did they do it?”

After the BP pipeline ruptured and was not able to be immediately repaired, scientists, engineers, technicians, and others all began echoing this refrain in one of its myriad variations.  Why did THEY do it?

The risk was enormous that a major problem could not be repaired easily at a depth of a mile, and might not  be repairable at all.  Yet, some accuse, “BP in its incessant greed for profits to shareholders at any cost, was totally reckless–another case of irresponsible corporate drive for profit, risking and injuring the public welfare for millions of others.

If that argument was literally true, this problem would have easy resolution.  And indeed, already there are executive orders, regulations, and laws coming on line that will curtail this corporate ability to endanger the public in the future.  Unfortunately, the problem is more complex than that, and I am not referring to the balance of risk between the protection of the environment and need for energy and energy independence.

The facet of the problem that will probably receive the least attention and in a sense was and will be most responsible for these problems is science and the scientists.  There is heavy causality here, albeit not necessarily moral responsibility.  The BP catastrophe could never have occurred if the scientists, engineers, and technologically-oriented members of our society had behaved differently.

Let’s start with one of the major “enablers” of the tragedy–The U. S. Senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu.  Like most good politicians, the extent of the oil spill problem was hardly known before she started wrapping her rump in armor and cover.  “I was told unequivocally that the drilling procedure and  technology were safe–that this could never happen.”  Landrieu was correct.  She, and other legislators and government officials had been repeatedly assured, privately and in public hearings, that that happened could not happen.  To the degree that the Senator had responsibility, it was not in weighiong the risks improperly, but in believing what she was told.  She is at the head of a long line of others who also accepted the assurances of the industry and the scientists who provided them.

There are unfortunately too many corporate leaders who have little compunction about lying to the public and even Congress in sworn testimony.  The image of the line of tobacco chief executives with their right hands raised under oath, telling the world that cigarette smoking was not addictive is and will be memorable for an entire generation.  Most providers of Congressional testimony however believe what the are saying.  Some who provide testimony for legislative guidance are right, and some turn out to be wrong. There are two commonalities between those two.  They both thought that they were right and they both believed what they said.  So in many case the hapless legislator has to choose–usually with little technical expertise of his or her own.

In the case of the offshore drilling, however, there was almost no scientific / engineering testimony about the likelihood  of successfully and rapidly repairing a major rupture one mile deep in the ocean.  There was no shortage of witnesses  who were opposed to offshore drilling.  The problem is that the linup of witnesses is generally as polarized as our politics have become.  In the case of deep water offshore drilling the nation did not need advocates or opponents as much as it needed testimony about the likelihood of having problems and being able to remedy those problems.  And when the drilling permits were issued, what was needed was review of the safety and contingency plans to determine if they were realistic–not assurance from those scientists and engineers who had a vested interest in going ahead with the drilling (or for that matter those who may have had a vested interested in halting the drilling.)

Virtually, every technorati in our society knew that we were doing deep drilling for oil.  This was no secret from the physicists, engineers, geologists, mathematicians and others.  All those who now ask “What could they have been thinking?” did not themselves ask at the time, “What will they do if once the deposit of oil is punctured by the drill and the pressure begins to be released, there was a small earthquake and the drill hole opened into a fissure? ”  What would they do if the drill itself hit a natural cleveage in the rock and it split apart gushing oil from a large opening rather than a single controlable drill hole?”  What would they do if there was some tectonic plate movement, the drill pipe snapped inside the hole, and the pipe connected to the drilling rig was no longer connected to the broken pipe in the hole?  How would they even find the exact hole?  If they did, what if the pressure was so great that they could not get a new drill bit and pipe into the hole?”  “Or if ‘something’ happened down there, how would they know what it was for sure?”

We do not know exactly what happened (and may never will know), and that is just the point.  What was the plan if something happened and oil was gushing into the ocean 6000 feet felow the waves and no one knew what had happened?  It doesn’t even take a very good scientist or engineer to ask these questions.  Yet if we go back to the national debates about offshore deep drilling, we will not find articles in the professional scientific journals either asking these questions or analysing the contingency plans or lack thereof.  It is reprehensible that politicians have the antipathy toward science that they do, that is not the fault of the contemporary scientists.  They can be faulted however for not sounding out in the organs they control, for not having sessions at local and national meetings dealing with such subjects.

When the facts start to emerge, it is probably the case that Louisiana and the Federal Government required BP and its subcontractors to file all kinds of contingency plans and there were reams of paper submitted making the Health Reform Bill appear tiny by comparison.  The irony is that is it likley the case that BP, the Coast Guard, and the other agencies followed those plans when the problem first became known.  The plans were probably managerially excellent.  Issues of authority and procedures were likely very clear.  That is why the Coast Guard initially deferred to BP.  That was what the contingency plan call for.  But the failure off the cost of Louisiana was probably not managerial.  It was likely scientific and technological.  They plans will likely be castigated and their authors pilloried as by definition the plans were inadequate.  If they were, the oil flow would have been stopped and society would be cleaning up the mess to whatever extent it was.  Instead we are trying to contain an ever enlarging massive pool of oil that is already almost too large for human technological capability.

There are complex reasons that scientists and engineers tend to be silent about public issues that really depend on science and technology.  In the old Soviet Union, and many other countries, scientists who pointed out potential problems in favorite government initiatives were imprisoned if not killed.  In America even, great scientists like the Father of the Atomic Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, were illegally railroaded with trumped up charges, before the government apologized.  Scientists tend, as a result of their discipline, not to opine on much outside of their own narrow field.  They know how complex issues are and how hard it is to achieve a sufficient degree of evidence to pass for truth and how much they study about their own field and still have large knowledge gaps.  The technorati  also know well that whatever may be so today, may not be tomorrow.  They tend not to go looking for issues on which to opine when they have more then enough in their own specialized preview.  But there are decisions which our society must make and a larger and larger proportion of the critical ones depend on scientific and technological concepts and training for understanding and analysis.  Few physicists have any specific experience with oil drilling of any kind.  And most engineers are more experienced building structures over water than under water.  Where we need our scientifically trained subset of society is to examine things like the contingency plans for deep drilling and not conclude whether we should drill or not.  Not even to estimate the risk of deep drilling.  We need to establish a norm where they examine the plans and answer the following to help the rest of us:

  • Does the plan follow and take into account scientific principles or does it assume technologies and capabilities that are yet to be proven reliable?
  •  Is there scientific evidence and testing for the plan functioning or are assumptions made? 
  • Are there risks that have not been addressed?
  •  Are there possible  easier or less expensive ways to achieve the plan objectives as well?
  •  Is the contingency plan based on experimental trials and tests of phases of the plan or would a problem be the first test of the plan?
  •  Does the team responsible for the creation and the implementation of the plan have scientists and engineers in the critical roles of decision making or only businesspeople, managers or politicians?
  •  Do the people who argue that the plan is sufficient have vested interests in the going ahead even if the plan is insufficient?


The present BP crisis offers three stark examples of where such review could have been very helpful.  The BP plan claimed that a “worst case scenario” was a discharge of 300,000 barrels of oil.  The plan claimed that  BP had the resources to protect the shore line and the islands from a 300,000 barrel discharge.  They could disperse and mop it up.  However, even a 1st year physics student could calculate that the hole the size they were drilling could discharge under pressure much MORE than 300,000 gallons in a number of days if it were wide open.  The worst case scenario should have been not only a wide open hole discharging oil under pressure, but a hole that enlarged to many times the size as the result of geological disturbances or a fissure caused by the drill itself.  Under a realistic worst case scenerio,  the company would not have and did not have sufficient resources to handle all the oil that escaped.

A second example is a probabilistic one.  The company and many deep drilling supporters argued when getting the permits that there were 30,000 different wells in the gulf and so the odds were overwhelmingly favorable.  One question that should have been asked is how many wells were 1 mile under water to the well head and another 1800 feet from the sea floor to the oil itself.  Like the “September Song” the examples dwindled down to a precious few.  And what proportion of the 30,000 each year have SOME unexpected and unanticipated happening?  Too many for comfort where we cannot  get our engineers and equipment to the potential problem source easily.

A third example was that BP plans called for a drilling rig with a device under water at the well head, which in an emergency had three different methods of closing off the pipe and cutting off the oil rapidly.  Someone might have asked, exactly how does this supposedly work and what triggers it.  Every machine has a failure rate — what is the probability that the device will work on a specific single occasion.  Did everyone know what the failure rate of the safety device was?  What kind of testing and experience had the device been subjected to?  And was it under the pressure of a mile column of water above it?  Had BP scientists develops and tested the device?  It turns out that they did not.  In this case the rig was rented and it came with the safety device?  And who checked the company which supplied it.  In the end, the safety device itself failed–none of the three safety methods did the trick.  The courts of America will be apportioning blame for that for decades.  Meanwhile, no one asked, what happens is the safety device itself fails at that depth.  Why was there not redundancy–backup systems and backups to the backups?  The way that NASA has for each critical component of a safety system.  A recent engineering  gradutate would have spotted that one.

So my proposal is this.  Every time we embark upon a debate on a policy or practice that depends on science or technology or are about to issue a permit or its equivalent,  both the public and private organizations involved should make ALL the documentation available on the Internet and invite scientists and engineers to review them and post any potential problems that they might see.

There are those who might argue that the government and private company scientists are competent and this is unnecessary.  One answer of course is that often these individuals have institutional positions that they are expected to defend of look at from a vested interest point of view.  But there is a much better rejoinder.  Often scientists and engineers who are NOT expert in the area or very close to it have an advantage of looking at the problem differently and with a point of view that is original.  The best example of this in modern times was the tragic Challenger Disaster.  In the entire history of the human race, there had never been an incident where more and better scientific personpower had engaged in trying to determine what had gone wrong.  Every NASA scientist, engineer,  and technician and their contractors and subcontractors tried to figure it out.  Hundreds of millions of dollars was spent specifically to determine what had gone wrong.  They didn’t do it.  A Presidential Commission was established and one of the appointees was theoretical physicist Richard Feynmin.  He had no experience with spacecraft, rocketry, industrial processes, safety system and the like.  He was a Nobel Prize winner for his mathematical and theoretical physics.  He was also what the committee chair called “a pain in the ass” as he did not understand or revere the NASA or government culture.  However, it was Feynman who figured the problem out, not with any complex equations of theoretical physics, or any experiments, but only be examining the data that EVERY OTHER  PERSON HAD SEEN and applying some principles of physics of which many high school students were capable.  When temperatures go down close to freezing flexible materials get harder and more rigid.  Instead of bending and sealing as they normally did, the soft plastic O rings sealing the fuel lines became rigid and cracked no longer sealing the fuel which leaked and exploded.

Technological tranparency with a national invitation to our technorati to weigh in, not on the politics of these issues, but on the science and technology.

May 2, 2010 at 7:37 PM Leave a comment

Political Lies & Current Republican Logic

Written by Lewis D. Eigen

 Since the Obama Administration assumed office and coped with the economic meltdown, the President and his economic team have been working on legislation to eliminate the possibility that the American taxpayer will every again have to bail out a private company that was “too big to fail.”  No sooner did the President make the proposed legislation public than the Republican Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell (KY) announced.  “the effort by President Obama and Democrats to reform the financial industry is actually a way to institute endless taxpayer funded bailouts for big Wall Street banks.[1]”  He claims that what the Treasury Department, the Council of Economic Advisors, the Federal Reserve, and such non partisan economic luminaries as Paul Volker have been working on for over a year, will do just the opposite of what the Administration’s purpose is in drafting the bill.  On the surface, McConnell’s statement appears absurd.  Many accuse him of just another deliberate political lie, about as absurd as the Republican “Death Panels” accusation in the Health Care Reform debate.  However, there is a logic to these Republican “lies”.  One that enables McConnell and many other Republican leaders to make these public announcements with a straight face.  One that allows their conscience and intellect to make these statements and not believe that they are lying to the public.  This article will explain and analyze this logic which may well be more dangerous for our Democracy than political lies. (more…)

April 28, 2010 at 5:36 PM 1 comment

Bigness: The Health Care Reform Criticism That is Always Made and Never Explained

Written by Lewis D. Eigen

With all the histrionics over Health Care Reform, throughout the entire process, it was easy to miss some of the very important issues of the debate. One, in particular, got entirely lost for a very interesting set of reasons. It was the Bigness issue. But there was hardly a Republican who did not complain about Bigness. It was mentioned hundreds of times each day throughout the more than a year of debate. How could it be lost?

It was “lost in plain site”. There are few citizens who do not know that one of the criticisms of the Health Care Reform Bill was that there would be a large, centralized, system running American Health Care instead of the smaller decentralized status quo. But very few people indeed can recall any discussion of WHY bigness would be bad–for our health delivery system and for the nation. That is what was missed. And that is where the Republican political tacticians could have done a much better job.. In their choice of tactics to defeat Health Care Reform, they failed to communicate and explain the, admittedly complex, issue of Bigness in American history and public policy. Had they done so, Health Reform probably still would still have passed, but it might look quite different from the present law. This article is the first of a series that discusses what the debate missed: Why bigness in our nation’s health system might not be very good. (more…)

March 29, 2010 at 10:48 PM 1 comment

Public Health Versus Private Health: The Coming Battle: 1. The Difference Has Little to do With Government and the Private Sector.

There are two groups of professionals in our nation’s health system. They are the medical providers who treat us advise us about our health. Then there are the public health professionals who develop the tools to prevent disease and create the protocols and recomendations for the treating professionals to use. On most issues, the two groups are in synch and each appreciates the other. But more and more, there are conflicts that result from each group looking at the same data and research, but doing so with a different perspective This article explains the differences between the two types of critical health professionals, and explains why they sometimes disagree and why they are BOTH RIGHT. The recent battle of the breast cancer screening recomendations is used to explain this critically imporant conflcit. Additional articles in this series will suggest ways we as health consumers can make sense of these conflicts, and how our political structure can cope with what often appear to be irreconcilable differences but are not really diametrically opposite.

Continue Reading November 23, 2009 at 5:35 PM Leave a comment

Perspective on the Obama Directive on Science Utilization in Policy Making

President Obama’s memorandum reproduced herein was issued to end and correct the abuses of the previous administration in corrupting the scientific process and imposing political and religious ideology on government scientific decisions. The president’s memo is annotated by Dr. Lewis D. Eigen, providing background and analysis of some of the requirements.

Continue Reading November 4, 2009 at 1:19 AM Leave a comment

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