Friday, July 28, 2006

Idiot Response to Andrea Yates Verdict

This week, the jury in the Andrea Yates murder trial found her not guilty by reason of insanity. Yates, in the throes of a prolonged and intense case of post-partum psychosis, drowned her five children in 2001.

Predictably, the verdict has received mixed reviews, some favoring the verdict, others decrying it as a miscarriage of justice. Similarly, the quality of the reviews have been mixed. Some have been intelligently discussed. Others are plain idiotic.

In the latter category is today's column by conservative pundit Michael Gallagher which is on The column's headline is "Not Guilty" with its subhead: "Our judicial system is broken. And somebody needs to fix it."

Among Gallagher's arguments are the following:

"I hope and pray that if we ever catch Osama Bin Laden, he doesn’t hire George Parnham, Andrea Yates’ attorney. After all, how crazy must he be, to think that slaughtering people who love Christ is the way to meet the 70 virgins in heaven? How nuts is someone who straps bombs to his body and blows up himself and a bunch of children in a pizza parlor?"

The major problems with this argument is that 1) Osama Bin Laden is biologically incapable of suffering post-partum psychosis and 2) the implication is that Parnham was able to get Yates to be set free, which is not true. Let's suppose Parnham did defend Bin Laden and was able to get him found not guilty be reason of insanity. The worst that would happen is that Bin Laden would spend the rest of his days in a mental institution, which, for him, might be a worse fate than death. Rather than be a martyr, he would just be viewed as a "kook."

Another Gallagher gem:

"Our judicial system needs help. The scales of justice are enormously tipped on the side of the bad guys. Since Andrea Yates and her attorneys were allowed to shop around for the jury they wanted, why can’t the prosecutors? If a multiple child-killer can keep going back to the well to come up with a verdict that pleases her (and keeps her out of jail), why can’t the state? Oh, that’s right: double jeopardy. We only give the judicial system one chance at a guilty verdict. The murderers get multiple chances, there’s no double jeopardy rule for a not guilty verdict."

Gallagher really hasn't followed the history of this trial. In the first trial, the prosecution proposed subjecting Andrea Yates to the death penalty, knowing full well that no jury (even in Texas, where the death penalty is frequently meted out) would ever give her that penalty. But, research has shown that death penalty qualified juries are more conservative that ones that are not, so getting a death penalty qualified jury stacked the deck against Yates in her quest for a "not guilty by reason of insanity" verdict.

During the trial, Park Dietz, a prosecution expert witness, gave false testimony on the stand. How much that testimony affected the jury will never be known. The jury found Yates guilty of murder, but failed to give her the death penalty.

Because of Dietz' false testimony, Yates' legal team was able to successfully appeal her verdict, and get a new trial. So, Andrea Yates was not getting "multiple chances" at a favorable verdict. She was getting *a* fair chance. Once she was given a *fair* chance at a trial, she was found "not guilty by reason of insanity."

The justice system worked exactly the way it should have.

In the criminal justice system, the concept of "mens rea" applies to determining whether or not someone is legally responsible for a crime, even as one as heinous as Andrea Yates killing her five children. Basically, "mens rea" means that you can appreciate the distinction between legal and illegal behavior.

When you are insane -- and there's no doubt Andrea Yates was and is insane -- you can't appreciate the distinction. If you can't appreciate the distinction, you are not guilty by reason of insanity.

That does not mean you go free. Andrea Yates is going to be in an institution probably for the rest of her life. Even if she no longer poses a danger to society, the prevailing politics of her case (as with John Hinckley) will keep her "off the street." But, at least she will get the treatment that she needs.

It is a tragedy of unfathomable proportions that the five Yates children died. Putting a terribly mentally ill patient into a prison would not have done nothing but compound that tragedy.

The jury did the right thing. The system worked. And all the idiotic commentary by pundits like Michael Gallagher won't change that simple truth.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Idiot Stossel Column

Yesterday, John Stossel, in his syndicated column entitled “Smearing Education Choice” attacks the conclusions of the recent Department of Education study that showed that students in public schools and private schools performed about the same in tests of reading and math. Stossel, a zealot on school choice, asks:

“Then why did the new study conclude that public schools performed as well?”

His answer:

“The researchers tortured the data.”

Oh? Stossel explains:

“It seems the private school kids actually scored higher on the tests, but then the researchers ‘dug deeper.’ They ‘put test scores into context’ by adjusting for ‘race, ethnicity, income and parents' educational backgrounds to make the comparisons more meaningful.’

Maybe it's unfair to call that ‘torturing the data.’ Such regression analysis is a valid statistical tool. But it's prone to researcher bias. Statistical hocus-pocus is not the best way to compare schools.”

Stossel's analysis that the results of the study came about is because the researchers “tortured the data” just reveals that he should stick to what he knows -- which obviously is not statistics. If he knew anything about regression analyses, let alone hierarchical linear modeling, then he would know what a rigorous and essentially unassailable analysis that the researchers carried out (given the limitations they faced, such as not having information about the students' prior academic achievement to have a point of comparison).

If Stossel wants to advocate school choice as his personal position, fine. But he shouldn't embarrass himself by thinking he can intelligently discuss the level of statistics presented in the Department of Education study.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Idiot Kent State Athletic Director

Recently, Kent State Athletic Director Laing Kennedy banned campus athletes from the using social networking site Facebook. Criticism forced Kennedy to back off a complete ban. Now only approved friends are allowed on (those not approved must be blocked) and coaches must be given access. Kennedy claimed he was "concerned" about the protecting athletes, especially against those "hangers-on, gamblers and agents" who could use a Facebook friendship to compromise eligibility. That's really unlikely, but it is only going to happen if the athlete wants it to happen. It has nothing to do with Facebook or social networking technology itself.

Let's face it. The major concern is the image of the athletics program -- which at Kent State is tied into making money -- not the protection of the students.

For example, at the University of Georgia football coach Mark Richt had someone from his staff surf the sites (what a great use of state money), leading Richt to have some players take down items that could be viewed negatively. Richt claimed the action was for the players' protection.

At Louisiana State, two swimmers, Matt Coenen and Eddie Kenney, were kicked off the team for complaining about the coach.

I played sports in college and know that being part of a sports team is a privilege and not a right.

But, free speech *is* a right, and not one that athletes should be forced to give up at the locker room door. And that's what is happening at Kent State. Georgia, LSU and a number of other places -- athletes are having their free speech rights seriously curtailed, all in the name of money.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Idiot Bush Veto

This week, President vetoed H.R. 810, the "Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005".

No press was at the veto ceremony (the White House did make some photos and video available). However, children who once were about-to-be-discarded embryos from fertility clinics, and individuals who have been treated by developments that have emerged from adult and umbilical cord stem cells were at the ceremony.

In 2001, the president reluctantly agreed to federal funding of existing embryonic stem cell lines, of which there were about 70. However, just over 20 lines are really viable, which means federally funded research into embryonic stem cells is proceeding at a snail's pace.

Today, virtually every poll reveals that two-thirds or more of the American public believes in more federal funding of embryonic stem cells. This year, both houses of Congress passed legislation allowing for it.

Bush vetoed the legislation for three reasons. First, as press secretary Tony Snow declared, Bush believes destroying embryos for their stem cells is murder. There are two problems with that argument. For one thing, if Bush truly believes that, why does he allow fertility clinics to destroy excess embryos. Secondly, if he is not going to bar that practice, then using the argument is moot -- the embryos are going to be destroyed anyway. Their fate is a given. Why would using the stem cells from embryos that are otherwise going to be destroyed an ethical problem?

Note: Of course, Bush likes to think of himself as pro-life, yet almost delighted in how often he was able to sign off on the death penalty while he was governor of Texas. In other words, hypocrisy does not seem to be a problem for Bush.

Second, Bush believes that these excess embryos can be adopted. In the past five years, somewhere between 75 and 125 of these "Snowflakes" have been adopted. There are an estimated 400,000 excess embryos that will be destroyed within five years. That means 80,000 per year need to be adopted, not 25 per year. While having the "Snowflakes" as the veto ceremony was a nice political touch, it was exploitative as well.

Finally, the president believes, as advisor Karl Rove (whose knowledge of medical research has, to date, largely been kept under wraps) has articulated, that there is far more potential for medical advances using adult stem cells than the potential inherent in embryonic stem cells. Unfortunately, the White House has only Mr. Rove's newfound scientific expertise to rely on (Rove must have been reading Ann Coulter's "Godless" for his medical knowledge), as no scientist has come forward to support Mr. Rove's claim.

It is true that more treatments have emerged from adult stem cells. But, the transformative nature of embryonic stem cells (in that they can be turned into an endless number of cells) is what gives them the potential to create more treatments and cures for diseases such as Parkinson's Disease or to help regenerate spinal cord cells for people suffering from paralysis.

President Bush ended his veto ceremony with the following passages:

"I made it clear to the Congress that I will not allow our nation to cross this moral line. I felt like crossing this line would be a mistake, and once crossed, we would find it almost impossible to turn back. Crossing the line would needlessly encourage a conflict between science and ethics that can only do damage to both, and to our nation as a whole. If we're to find the right ways to advance ethical medical research, we must also be willing, when necessary, to reject the wrong ways. So today, I'm keeping the promise I made to the American people by returning this bill to Congress with my veto.

As science brings us ever closer to unlocking the secrets of human biology, it also offers temptations to manipulate human life and violate human dignity. Our conscience and history as a nation demand that we resist this temptation. America was founded on the principle that we are all created equal, and endowed by our Creator with the right to life. We can advance the cause of science while upholding this founding promise. We can harness the promise of technology without becoming slaves to technology. And we can ensure that science serves the cause of humanity instead of the other way around."

Thank goodness the man wasn't president during the 1950s, or we'd still see thousands of children crippled by polio. Who knows? We may still be treating patients by bleeding them.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Idiot Bush Should Be Impeached

Today Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admitted that President Bush prevented a review of the warrantless wiretapping program earlier this year by Justice Department lawyers.

Gonzales said Bush refused to give the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility access to the classified program. When Gonzales was asked why Bush had declined access, he replied, "The president of the United States makes decisions about who is ultimately given access." Of course, in this case, by denying access, Bush has also obstructed the investigation.

When in the last six months, a number of Bush administration critics were calling for his impeachment, I thought that was way out of line. No more. This action by Bush is obstruction of justice, and is an impeachable offense.

If the Congress of the United States can impeach a sitting president for lying about a blow job from a White House intern, it can certainly impeach a president who is actively preventing the proper investigation of a program that has the potential to threaten our civil liberties.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Idiot Coulter Plagiarism Denial

A week ago, the New York Post presented the results of John Barrie, an expert in detecting plagiarism who examined Ann Coulter's new book "Godless." Several blogs had charged Coulter with using other writers' work without attribution. Using iThenticate, his plagiarism-probing system, Barrie discovered Coulter took virtually word-for-word a 24-word segment of a story from the San Francisco Chronicle, 25 words from a Planned Parenthood publication and a 33-word portion of a story from a newspaper in Portland, Maine. The expert also found Coulter's citations to be sloppy and misleading, and that she had committed plagiarism in several of her columns.

Coulter's publisher, Crown Publishing, does not see a problem with what Coulter did. Labelling the charges of Coulter's plagiarism as "trivial and meritless as they are irresponsible", Steve Ross of Crown declared:

"The number of words used by our author in these snippets is so minimal that there is no requirement for attribution."

Newsflash to Mr. Ross. Plagiarism is not determined by the number of words, but by the unattributed use of others' words. For example, one of my favorite Hunter S. Thompson expressions is "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." That's 9 words. If I try to pass that expression off as my own, it's plagiarism!

I wonder if Mr. Ross will be called as an expert witness for University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill. The university has recommended that he be dismissed for plagiarism. I believe that one of the passages in question was between 30-35 words. Plus, maybe Mr. Ross can answer a critical question posed by writer Tom Grieve: "How many words can an author steal before the theft counts as plagiarism? If 24 or 25 or 33 words isn't enough, what is?"

Monday, July 03, 2006

Idiot Vatican Proposal

Last week, senior Vatican official Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, who heads the group that proposes family-related policy for the Catholic Church, proclaimed that scientists involved in stem cell research using human embryos should be subject to excommunication from the church. These comments come close on the heels of a July 9th meeting to discuss the policy on stem cell research. Trujillo equated destroying an embryo with abortion.

It is actions like these that make me scratch my head when it comes to the Church. AIDS is destroying Africa, but the Church does not even want to consider loosening its condom policy. Then there's the example of Cardinal Law who, from his position in Boston, oversaw the worst scandal of priests sexually abusing children in recent history. His criminal neglect left the Archdiocese nearly bankrupt, forcing it to close dozens of schools and curtail numerous services. But, rather than be subject to criminal prosecution (and, perhaps, a prison confinement where he may have learned firsthand what horrors those wbused children had to endure), the Vatican promotes him.

Now, there's a proposal to excommunicate scientists who are trying to discover ways to rid people of diseases, such as diabetes and Parkinson's. These scientists are not out there recruiting men and women to create embryos so they can be destroyed. The embryos in question are excess embryos from fertility clinics that are going to be destroyed at some point anyway. A policy of excommunicating scientists who work on the stem cells from these fetuses is not going to change the ultimate fate of the fetuses. The fertility clinics are not going to store them forever.

I hope the Church decides that this policy is like trying to kill a fly with a nuclear weapon. Otherwise, it becomes another policy that will either drive members away from the Church, or, more likely, just continue to only follow the doctrine that they like -- which certainly doesn't build a solid relationship with the church.