February 10, 2010

Snowpocalypse 2010

Snowpocalypse 2010, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Snowpocalypse 2010

Snowpocalypse 2010, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Mission: Acquire snow boots. Timing: Suboptimal.

February 09, 2010

Did the fathers of modern obstetrics murder more women than Jack the Ripper?

Latoya Peterson of Jezebel spotted this disconcerting story in Sunday's Guardian:

They are giants of medicine, pioneers of the care that women receive during childbirth and were the founding fathers of obstetrics. The names of William Hunter and William Smellie still inspire respect among today's doctors, more than 250 years since they made their contributions to healthcare. Such were the duo's reputations as outstanding physicians that the clienteles of their private practices included the rich and famous of mid-18th-century London.

But were they also serial killers? New research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM) claims that they were. A detailed historical study accuses the doctors of soliciting the killing of dozens of women, many in the latter stages of pregnancy, to dissect their corpses. [Guardian]

This story has all the makings of an anti-science urban legend. Regardless of the quality of the underlying research, this story is going to get embellished in the retelling and used to bash scientific medicine.

The allegations are already being mentioned in the same breath as documented atrocities like the Tuskegee syphilis study, and Dr. Joseph Mengele's infamous concentration camp experiments.

I checked out Don C. Shelton's original paper. It's a very good read. Shelton raises credible suspicions about where these two doctors got their anatomical specimens. He, shamelessly overstates his case, however. Shelton flatly asserts that Hunter and Smellie were "responsible" for the murders of more women than Jack the Ripper.

The subjects of the anatomy books were women who died in childbirth, or during their final month of pregnancy. Shelton's argument is that there simply weren't enough heavily pregnant and birthing women dying of natural causes in mid-18th-century London to account for all the thirty-plus cadavers that Smellie and Hunter examined to write their respective anatomical classics.

Based on a review of their atlases, Shelton says that the two anatomists came up with a total of 20 cadavers between 1750 and 1754; and that Hunter somehow located another dozen between 1766 and 1774. That works out to four or five such bodies a year for the first stretch and fewer than two a year for the second period.

Shelton concludes that the doctors must have had these women murdered-to-order, a practice known as burking. The term burking is an allusion to the murderers Burke and Hare who smothered their victims in Edinburgh between 1837 and 1838 and delivered them to Dr. Robert Knox, a private anatomy lecturer. 

Shelton acknowledges that there is no research on burking in the mid-18th century.  He doesn't cite any documented cases of burking during that era.

There is no question anatomists of Smellie and Hunter's day got their cadavers from grave robbers. That's how it was done in those dark and superstitious days.

Shelton's case boils down to two rather plausible, but non-dispositive claims: i) very few women died in their 9th month of pregnancy or during childbirth to begin with, and, ii) it's unlikely that ordinary grave robbers would have been able to zero in on these rare cases.

Grave robbers tended to exhume corpses at random, Shelton explains. Or else they targeted the unclaimed bodies of people who died in poorhouses. But he notes that most of those who died in poorhouses were old and sick, not otherwise healthy pregnant women.

Death rates for infectious disease were very high in mid-18th-century London, but Shelton claims that pregnant women would have accounted for small percentage of the death toll. As he points out, they're a subset of the general population and a relatively young and healthy one at that.

Shelton cites statistics to show that the childbed death rate in the mid-18th-century was less than 2%. Based on the birth and death rates and the population of London at the time, he estimates that there would have been about 200 childbed deaths per year.

He argues that women who died in their 9th month of pregnancy would have been rarer still. Shelton suggests that very pregnant cadavers would have been extremely rare because a significant percentage women who suffered lethal illnesses or accidents in their 9th month would have miscarried before they died.

But even at their most productive, the two doctors were only seeing about five of their target subjects a year, on average. Five out of 200 doesn't seem that incredible.

The author also maintains that it would have been very difficult for grave robbers to find these rare specimens: Death notices were rarely published in those days and corpses usually went directly from home to the graveyard without a detour through a funeral home or some other central location that thieves could monitor.

Personally, if I were an 18th-Century anatomist who needed a steady supply of "special" cadavers, I'd start bribing vicars. If you pay for the new church roof, I'm sure it's amazing what you can find out about who's buried where.

So, the paper gives us good reason to doubt that Smellie and Hunter got all their cadavers through the standard grave-robbing channels. But that's hardly proof that the two men commissioned mass murder for hire.

Smellie and Hunter were famous obstetricians. They worked with pregnant and birthing women. In an era where most childbirth was handled at home, they probably served a disproportionately sick patient population.

Let's not forget that primitive obstetrics was really dangerous--no doubt in part because because science was still sketchy on pregnant female anatomy. If anyone was well-situated to tip off grave robbers about dead pregnant women, or take liberties with their corpses, it would have been 18th-century obstetricians.

As the author points out, Smellie and Hunter were rich and well-connected men. He implies that they could have gotten away with murder. On the other hand, if they could have gotten away with murder, they presumably had enough privilege to get what they wanted by less drastic, if socially unacceptable means. 

Shelton claims the following passage, written in 1818, is a smoking gun. The author was describing a plate in Smellie's atlas that features twins:

“Dr MacKenzie being then an assistant to the late Dr Smellie, the procuring and dissecting this woman without Dr Smellie’s knowledge, was the cause of a separation between them, for the leading steps to such a discovery could not be kept a secret."

Smellie died in 1763 and 55 years later, some guy claimed that an associate of Smellie's obtained the corpse by unspecified (but presumably sketchy) means without Smellie's knowledge. This is supposed to be a smoking gun? Really?

Shelton gives us no reason to assume that Smellie and Hunter were monsters. Why immediately jump to the conclusion that they were murderers? There have been killers in the name of science and medicine, but they've always been a tiny minority among scientists and for that matter, a very small subset of murderers. Shelton's wild allegation seems absurd unless you buy into some nasty stereotypes about doctors and scientists.

He makes no attempt to rule out less brutal schemes by which they might have improved their odds relative to common grave-robbers. Could they have performed unauthorized autopsies on pregnant patients who died of natural causes? Bribed the families of the deceased? Stolen the bodies of their own indigent patients? If a body was returned to the family with an incision in the abdomen, the obstetricians could always claim it was a cesarean section.

Were all their subjects even dead? Presumably they could have learned from examining and treating live women. It's a mundane possibility, but who's to say these guys didn't exaggerate the number of corpses they actually looked at? Academic dishonesty is more common than murder.

Obviously, I'm speculating here, but so is Shelton. He makes probabilistic arguments, so I'll make one too: If same end can be achieved through subterfuge or serial murder, most people will opt for subterfuge. Dead pregnant women are rare, but mass murderers are rarer still. Of course, tall tales of body snatchers, natural and supernatural, are as common as dirt.

Shelton is right to question how these doctors got their cadavers, but he simply does not have enough evidence to conclude that these pioneers of modern obstetrics killed more women than Jack the Ripper. This paper is just going to give the science bashers unearned ammunition.

February 07, 2010

Tim Tebow Super Bowl ad is kind of goofy

You disappoint me, Focus on the Family.

Your pre-Super Bowl media manipulation was so slick. I was anticipating a stirring piece of pro-life propaganda. Maybe my expectations were too high.

Granted, it's a story that unfolds over several thirty-second spots, and [T]his is only the second of two spots. (Correction: I assumed there must be more to this campaign, but apparently, that's it.)

Spoiler alert: Pam Tebow is talking in front of a white screen about how much she loves her son, at which point he cartoonishly tackles her for no apparent reason. She exclaims "Timmy, I'm trying to tell our story here!" At which point he jumps up, literally, a bunny hop, and hugs her.

Leni Riefenstahl would puke.

February 04, 2010

Of course the National Enquirer should be eligible for a Pulitzer Prize

The editor of the National Enquirer is openly angling for a Pulitzer Prize for the tabloid's expose of John Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter, secret love child, and alleged use of campaign funds to underwrite his indiscretions.

I tend to agree with John Cook of Gawker on this one, the National Enquirer should probably be in the running. Like it or not, this was one of the big scoops of the year. Well, the last two years, really. As an investigative reporter, I like to see institutions rewarded for investing in old fashioned investigations. An insider didn't just hand this story to the Enquirer on a silver platter, they went out and dug for it.

Just to be clear, I'm not hoping the Enquirer's Edwards coverage wins. At end of the day, it was mostly tawdry gossip. It was tawdry gossip that assumed meta-importance because everyone knows that gossip influences elections, but still.

Besides, Edwards was already politically finished by the time the Enquirer nailed down the details. I'm sure the Pulitzer judges can find reporting that had a bigger impact, maybe even work that exposed injustice or--gasp--made someone's life better.

Enquirer's reputation of paying for information should complicate its Pulitzer ambitions. That's generally considered a no-no in mainstream journalism. That said, big news outlets routinely find ways to pay celebrity interview subjects without paying them. For example, sometimes they'll pay the subject a ridiculous fee to license some snapshot of the person with the understanding that the photograph comes with an exclusive interview. 

According to John Cook, there's nothing in the Pulitzer rulebook that disqualifies checkbook journalism. But that doesn't mean that judges shouldn't take reporting methods into account. Information volunteered freely is generally better and more reliable journalism than the word of paid informants.

It would also be harmful to the profession to openly reward checkbook journalism. (If that's actually what the Edwards coverage was based on.) If pay-to-pay becomes the norm, journalism becomes even more of a gated community. When it comes time to hand out awards, corporations that buy scoops should get less consideration than reporters who earn them the old fashioned way.

We don't know that the Enquirer paid for info in the Edwards story. Rumor has it that there were plenty of disgruntled people willing to spill for free. If the Enquirer's editor can assure the Pulitzer judges that his reporters played by generally accepted journalistic rules, then the series should at least be a serious contender for the prize--assuming the judges find the editor's claims credible. 

Cook does a good job of debunking several the nitpicky excuses for disqualifying the Edwards coverage outright, such as the claim that the Enquirer isn't eligible because it isn't really a newspaper.

Treating the Enquirer's Edwards reporting a serious Pulitzer contender is like nominating Avatar for Best Picture. I seriously doubt it was the year's best film, but an endeavor that succeeds so spectacularly on its own terms deserves to be nominated.

February 03, 2010

There are no homophobes in foxholes: Repeal DADT now

Some (admittedly ridiculous) people say that we shouldn't repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell in wartime. Really, though, what better time to take the decisive step towards justice and equality? In peacetime, homophobes in the military would have plenty of time to obsess about all the terrible things that might happen if the gays were let in.

But if you learn that the person who is entrusted with keeping you alive in a firefight is gay, are you really going to make a big deal about it?

Video: My GRITtv interview with Laura Flanders

Yesterday, I sat down with Laura Flanders of GRITtv to talk about the alleged phone-tamperers who were arrested last week for dressing up as phone repairmen and attempting unsuccessfully to access to the main telephone cabinet for Sen. Mary Landrieu's office. One of the four, Stan Dai, is a former assistant director for a intelligence recruiting program funded by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. My fellow guest, Dr. David Price is an anthropologist who monitors the intelligence community's attempts to insinuate itself into academia.

Media Consortium outlets have been scooping the established press left and right on the phone tampering story. Check out some of the highlights in the latest edition of The Weekly Pulse.

February 02, 2010

O'Keefe prosecutor recused himself/Lindsay on GRITtv today

Interesting news from the WSJ's law blog:

The plot thickens a bit down in the Big Easy over the arrest of James O’Keefe and three other activist arrested last week while trying to capture secret footage in the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D. La.). On Monday, the U.S. attorney in New Orleans recused himself from O’Keefe’s case, citing, well, not very much.

A DOJ news release said simply that Jim Letten, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, recused himself from the case a day after the Jan. 25 arrests. Letten’s top lieutenant, assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann, has taken over.

No official reason has been offered for the recusal, but WSJ blogger Ashby Jones speculates that it might have to do with the fact that one of James O'Keefe's co-accuseds is Robert Flanagan, the son of an acting U.S. Attorney in Louisiana. 

By the way, I'm going to be on GRITtv this afternoon to talk about the phone tampering scandal, probably shortly after 1:30 EST. I'll post the video as soon as I can.

February 01, 2010

"Mentor" to alleged phone tamperers blogged about dirty tricks with phones

Justin Elliott of TPM Muckraker points to a new story in the New York Times about Ben Wetmore, a 28-year-old conservative activist who let anti-ACORN provocateur James O'Keefe and his merry band crash at his New Orleans home prior to their arrest for allegedly attempting to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu's phones. 

According to the New York Times, Wetmore was a mentor to a network of right wing provocateurs who embraced various forms of political theater to dramatize their issues on college campuses. Marcy Wheeler's commenter cinnamonape connected the dots between Ben Wetmore and James O'Keefe last Friday.

The page BenWetmore.com now redirects automatically to Newsbusters. A WHOIS search for that domain delivers no information. However, the cached version looks like the personal blog of the now infamous Ben Wetmore, campus provocateur.

The cached site is Countermedia. The author, who replies to blog commenters under the name "Ben" writes bitterly about his tenure the Leadership Institute, the conservative group where Wetmore and O'Keefe used to work. Amongst other things, Ben assails the Leadership Institute for trying to take undeserved credit for O'Keefe's early video successes. "All the good things at the Institute while I was there happened despite the management, or by going around them. I was nearly fired, as was my boss [former] Cong. Steve Stockman, for buying the initial video equipment that James [O'Keefe] used," Ben wrote last September. He seemed especially bitter that the LI hired and fired idealistic young conservatives capriciously. Where's a union when you need one, eh? 

This post, dated Oct 21, 2009, survives in the Google cache:

Disrupting speeches on the cheap

Leftists disrupt speeches by throwing pies, calling names, and chanting stupid stuff.

So uncreative.

Personally I've given advice to disrupt malcontents like Michael Moore using track phones going off with obscenely loud ringers in various locations, as well as a variety of other crazy schemes that I'd rather not go into.

In a cached post dated Sept. 18, 2009 at BenWetmore.com floats the idea of impersonating Barack Obama in a robocall.

[Original reporting, please credit Lindsay Beyerstein.]

Continue reading ""Mentor" to alleged phone tamperers blogged about dirty tricks with phones" »

January 30, 2010

Ladies, meet your new gender diversity coordinator, Mr. Angry Penis

Stan Dai, one of the four Republican operatives arrested this week for allegedly plotting to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu's telephones, is a bit of a self-styled spook, at least in his own mind. His resume features some relatively junior administrative gigs with programs sponsored by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Defense. He also liked to publicly hold forth on terrorism, intelligence, and surveillance in videos and in before the Junior Statesmen of America.

You can rest easy, Laura Rozen was able to confirm that Dai never worked directly for a U.S. intelligence agency. Rather, he worked for programs supported by grants from these organizations. As far as we know, he never claimed otherwise. But he certainly got a lot of mileage out of his job titles including Assistant Director for the Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence at Trinity Washington University and Operations Officer for a DOD fellowship on irregular warfare. Dai's resume also lists him as having been an undergraduate fellow at the right wing Center for the Defense of Democracies. I called the Center to confirm this claim. A spokeswoman explained that the fellowship was a summer enrichment program for college students, which Dai completed in 2004. 

So, what is an Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence? Mark Hosenball of Newsweek reports that the ODNI gives grants to universities to attract more women and minority students to intelligence work. 

Stan Dai, as you will recall is the author of the Penis Monologues, a satire of the Vagina Monologues in which Dai's penis reacts with fury at being invited to a performance of the VM. (Quoth Dai: "MY PENIS IS ANGRY!!!!!!! You want to know what happened to my penis? Joan [the 5-foot-tall hairy vagina] happened to my penis!")

The irony is not lost on Marcy Wheeler: "As Hosenball points out, it’s ironic that a movement conservative like Dai was involved in what was basically a program to encourage diversity. But I’m a little more shocked that ODNI, under Mike McConnell, was funding Mr. Angry Penis to help recruit women into the field of intelligence."