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Archive for February, 2009

Friday, February 27th, 2009

More events with Donald Prothero on Evolution

EvolutionDonald Prothero continues his whirlwind tour to spread the word about Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters.

March 9, 2009, 7:30 PM
University of Alabama
The Biology Auditorium (room 127 Biology) Biology Building, 411 Hackberry Lane, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487

March 11, 2009, 7:00 PM
University of Tulsa
Helmerich Hall, 2900 E. 5th St. Tulsa, OK 74104

March 14, 2009, 9:15 AM
Alberta Paleontological Society
Mount Royal College, 4825 Mount Royal Gate SW, Alberta, Calgary, T3E 6K6 CANADA

March 14, 2009, 2:00 PM
Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology
P.O. Box 7500 Drumheller, Alberta T0J 0Y0 CANADA

If you can’t catch Prothero in person at an event, check out his recent post on this blog about Darwin.

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Dubai: Is the Party Over?

DubaiIn recent years Dubai has experienced stunning growth with glittering hotels and fabulous skyscrapers on practically every corner. But is Dubai a case of the higher they rise, the further they have to fall? In this video that recently aired on Al-Jazeera’s Riz Khan show, Christopher Davidson, author of Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success joins a panel of experts to discuss whether the recent $10 billion bailout Dubai received from the United Arab Emirates is the answer to Dubai’s problems, or merely a stopgap measure before the inevitable failure.

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Interview with Bruce Gilley

The Right to RuleThe following is an interview with Bruce Gilley, author of The Right to Rule: How States Win and Lose Legitimacy.

Q: Isn’t legitimacy just smoke and mirrors, a way for the powerful to mystify and subdue the weak?

Bruce Gilley: Well, if that’s true then a large part of the population of every major industrial liberal democracy, not to mention many developing countries, is brainwashed. I think that such a view is monstrously condescending, and, more to the point, untrue. People generally have good reasons for believing what they do. We might not agree with them, but that is a separate matter. In any case, I find in The Right to Rule that states which are more democratic, better governed, and developing faster tend to be more legitimate. What’s so bad about that? Even when you peer beneath the surface, legitimacy appears to be generated through reasonable and rational processes of communication and evaluation. Radicals of both left and right have long held the average person in great disdain. History speaks for the ravages of their alternative utopias. Once you start to take seriously the question of what is legitimate in the mind of the average person, you pretty much guarantee that you are going to design a state that is “populist” in some sense. That almost always means the sorts of dull democracies under which we live.

Q: But doesn’t that mean some pretty awful regimes can be popularly legitimate too?

BG: Yes, sometimes. And that’s when we need to be able to make the distinction between what is empirically legitimate and what is normatively legitimate. My argument here is that for the most part we need to be more sensitive to local conceptions of legitimacy. China is a good example, a country with a remarkably legitimate regime despite its poor human rights record. This case strains my own normative sensibilities, my willingness to allow a “margin of appreciation” for what a given notion of legitimacy should allow. But it is an outlier. Most countries with such poor rights records are reviled by their own citizens—think of Zimbabwe, or Myanmar. They are, in other words, in legitimacy crisis, and that has long been a central factor in political change or even political revolutions.

Q: Talking about legitimacy crisis, don’t we have one here in the United States?


Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Don’t Try to Speak to the Muslim World!

Politics of Chaos in the Middle EastThe following is a post from Olivier Roy, author of The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East. This post originally appeared on the UC Berkeley website Blue Sky: New Ideas for the Obama Administration.

The Obama administration must not try to speak to something called the “Muslim world.” It does not exist!To offer a dialogue with the Muslim world is precisely to play on the narrative of Osama bin Laden: the world is divided into two parts, the “West” and the “Muslims.” This narrative allows bin Laden to cast himself as the best protector of such a virtual Muslim world.

From Gaza to India, most of the conflicts where Muslims are involved have nothing to do with Islam. Hamas represents Palestinian nationalism under a thin Islamic garb. In Iraq, factions are competing over land and power, not Islamic law. The Bombay attacks stemmed from the conflict between India and Pakistan, fueled by the Pakistani army.

Moreover, Muslims in the West want to be considered first as Western citizens, not as the bridge-head of a foreign influence. Speaking of a Muslim world means pointing to “our” Muslims as foreigners. By addressing the “Muslim world,” do we mean to suggest that the West is defined by Christianity or by secularism?

President Obama cannot speak as the head of the Christian world. But to present the rule of law and human rights as typically Western secular values gives credence to authoritarian Arab leaders and Muslim conservative clerics, who are happy to present these values as “foreign.”

If President Obama tries to open an official dialogue with them, he will effectively define these leaders as representative of the “Muslim world,” thus pre-empting any change. Our policy must recognize the diversity of Islamic people, not assuming a monolithic world.

Olivier Roy is Visiting Professor of Political Science and author of “The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East,” (Columbia University Press, 2008).

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Anatomy of a Scare

Autism's False ProphetsIn this week’s issue of Newsweek, reporter Sharon Begley tells the background story behind the vaccine-autism link scare and how bad science for years managed to derail efforts to investigate the true cause of autism. This article is a short introduction to the the longer and more detailed treatment of the topic in Paul Offit’s new book, Autism’s False Prophets. Describing the resulting lower vaccination rates, Begley says

The anti-vaccine campaign was having an effect. As parents postponed vaccinating their children, or refused vaccines entirely, children were suddenly catching preventable diseases, and some were dying. The number of measles cases in the United States reached 131 in 2008, the highest in decades. Last month five children in Minnesota became infected with Hib. Four developed serious complications; the fifth child died. Other parents, believing that yanking mercury out would cure a child’s autism, opted for chelation. Unfortunately, it can pull out vital metals such as iron and calcium as well as toxic mercury and lead.

You can watch a video of Paul Offit explaining the book here


Friday, February 20th, 2009

Breast Cancer Cluster in a Building at the University of California at San Diego

Geoffrey KabatThe following post is by Geoffrey Kabat, Ph.D., a cancer epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who has conducted studies of breast cancer and environmental factors and is the author of Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology. You can also read a post by Kabat on thirdhand tobacco smoke.

The campus at the University of California at San Diego is in turmoil over a cluster of eight breast cancer cases and what action the university should take to address a potential health threat. On Tuesday faculty, staff, and students marched to protest hazardous work conditions in the Literature Building, where the eight affected women, who were diagnosed with breast cancer since 2000, worked.

Concern has focused on some potential common exposure in the building and particularly on an elevator thought to produce strong electromagnetic fields. The university has hired a UCLA epidemiologist, who has done extensive research on the health effects of electromagnetic fields, to conduct a two-month study of the problem.

I believe that there is a need to investigate clusters like this, if only to reassure the community and to “leave no stone unturned.” There is always the possibility that something new could be learned. However, based on previous studies of cancer clusters, on what we know about breast cancer, and what we know from studies of environmental factors and electromagnetic fields in relation to breast cancer risk, it is unlikely that the crash study will turn up a common environmental exposure that could explain the cluster. Here’s why:

First, breast cancer takes perhaps two decades to develop before it is diagnosed. This raises the question of how long the eight women were working in the literature building. Although it is always striking when a number of cases of the same cancer occur in a restricted area, it needs to be remembered that there will be excesses (or clusters) as well as deficits when one looks at the distribution of cases in space. Some of these highs and lows will be due simply to chance.


Thursday, February 19th, 2009

The Late Age of Print … Blog

Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print:Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control will be published in May but in the meantime you can visit his excellent blog fittingly titled The Late Age of Print.

Posts on the site have included discussions of should the “book” be dropped in e-book, what may lay in Amazon’s future, Kindle 2.0, and book piracy.

The most recent post entitled What Publishing Can Learn, Part 1 looks at what publishers can learn from The Da Vinci Code. In the post Striphas remarks on his sister’s ease in poring through Dan Brown’s book and what this mode of engagement might portend for the way we read. More specifically, the novel’s short chapters reminded her of watching a movie and as Striphas suggests is tuned to the “fine-grain” of twenty-first-century everyday life. However, as Stirphas notes Brown’s method can also be found in earlier works by far more ambitious writers:

Anyone who’s ever consumed or even simply thumbed through Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) or Understanding Media (1964) will recognize The Da Vinci Code’s distant kin. The former are academic screeds composed of punchy “snack sized” chapters. McLuhan understood better, and earlier, than almost anyone how to communicate effectively using the printed word in a time not only of ascendant electronic media but indeed of myriad other everyday distractions.

In saying that The Da Vinci Code’s success is attributable in part to the brevity of its chapters, I should be clear that I am absolutely not suggesting that people’s attention spans are waning, or that we have lost our ability to process long, slowly developing arguments or narratives. Nevertheless, ours unquestionably is an age of myriad distractions — electronic or otherwise (a crying baby, a loud truck rolling by, the incessant drone of leaf blowers) — that make it more difficut to spend protracted periods of time with protracted amounts of text.

My suggestion that books might be better served with smaller chapters, à la The Da Vinci Code, thus is a pragmatic rather than a moral one. Essentially I’m asking book publishers and authors to attune their sensitivities better to the fine-grain of everyday life, where reading happens, and to refashion their books accordingly.

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Will Corporate Social Responsibility Survive the Recession?

When Principles PayIn last week’s The Big Money, published by Slate, Christopher Flavelle examined whether or not corporate social responsibility (CSR) would be jettisoned for the bottom line during these very difficult economic times.

While the concept of corporate social responsibility might seem a bit oxymoronic given the stories about executive pay and other business-related scandals and malfeasance, CSR has been embraced by more companies over the last few years. The article quotes Geoffrey Heal a leading expert on CSR and author of When Principles Pay: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Bottom Line:

Since the concept of CSR became popular, there’s never been a recession like the one we’re going into right now. Profits are going to be very hard to come by for many corporations. If they see CSR as contributing to their bottom line, they’ll continue to act responsibly. If they see CSR as a kind of a PR campaign, they’ll probably cut back on it.

So, does CSR contribute to the bottom line? Using an interactive tool called the Socially Responsible Investing Stock Screener, Big Money looked at the stocks of the 100 most responsible and the 100 least responsible companies and compared their stock price on February 11 2008 to their price on February 10, 2009. The result:

The stock price of both the more responsible and less responsible companies fell by approximately the same amount—about 37 percent. (In fact, the stock price of the more responsible companies fell by 1.4 percentage points less than the price of the less responsible companies, but that difference isn’t statistically significant for a total sample size of 50 companies.) In the worst economic turmoil in decades, when investors had every reason to shed pretensions of political correctness, companies that put time and energy into behaving responsibly seem, thus far anyway, to have performed no worse than those that didn’t.

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

The Power of Nonviolence — A Post by Joseph Kip Kosek

Acts of ConscienceThe following post is by Joseph Kip Kosek, author of Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy.

The concept of nonviolence seems to have little power today. Barack Obama’s inauguration, followed quickly by Black History Month, inspired many stirring tributes to the civil rights movement. However, the nonviolent outlook and tactics of that movement have become museum pieces, not unlike the lunch counter from the famous 1960 Greensboro sit-ins that is now preserved at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Everyone admires nonviolence when it remains safely in the past, but it looks a little too exotic, too effete, and perhaps even too religious to be much help in our present moment. Does nonviolence really have anything to offer amid the violent crises exploding around the world today?

Seventy-five years ago, an American pacifist named Richard Gregg confronted an essentially similar question. His 1934 book The Power of Non-Violence was the first substantial attempt by an American to imagine nonviolence as a formidable strategy in the modern world, not simply as a virtuous allegiance to high-minded ideals. Many years after its initial publication, Martin Luther King, Jr. read The Power of Non-Violence and brought its central ideas into the nascent civil rights movement. King frequently cited the book as one of his most important intellectual influences, alongside the writings of Mohandas Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. Gregg forced King, as he forces us, to realize that nonviolence is not merely admirable or historically interesting, but fundamentally necessary.

Richard Bartlett Gregg was born in 1885, the son of a minister. By all accounts he was a modest and unassuming person, “one of the quietest radicals in history,” as an admirer put it. He began his career as a labor lawyer, but soon became disheartened by the dehumanizing logic of big business, the government’s failure to protect workers, and the often violent tactics of both capital and labor in the turbulent opening decades of the twentieth century.


Friday, February 13th, 2009

University Press Round-Up

With much of the publishing world’s attention, excitement, and anxiety focused on this week’s “Tools of Change” conference, we also wanted to once again showcase all the interesting posts and books coming from our fellow university presses:

Jacqueline Olds argues “Loneliness Doesn’t Have to Get You Down on Valentine’s Day.” (Beacon Press)

Anny Bakalian and Mehdi Bozorgmehr discuss their book Backlash 9/11: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans Respond. (University of California Press)

What does a publicist at a university press do? (University of Chicago Press)

Negar Mottahedeh, author of Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema, discusses the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeni, and the International Fajr Film festival. (Duke University Press)

Author, folklorist, and artist Art Rosenbaum wins a Grammy. (University of Georgia Press)

An “Origin-a-thon”? Volunteers read out loud from Darwin’s signature work, two pages at a time, for seven hours. (Harvard University Press)


Friday, February 13th, 2009

Special Court Says Vaccines Are Not To Blame for Autism

“It’s a great day for science, it’s a great day for America’s children when the court rules in favor of science.”—Dr. Paul Offit on yesterday’s special court ruling.

Yesterday, we posted about the Times of London story about Andrew Wakefield’s manipulation of research to show a link between vaccines and autism. Later, a special court ruled against three families with children with autism seeking compensation from the federal vaccine-injury fund.

From the New York Times:

In the three cases, each decided by a judge called a special master, the court found that the families had not shown that their children’s autism was brought on by substances in the vaccines — either the measles virus in the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, or its combination with thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that was used in most childhood vaccines until 2001.

In a case pitting the family of Michelle Cedillo, a severely autistic child, against the Department of Health and Human Services, the judge ruled that the Cedillos had “failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to causing immune dysfunction, or that the M.M.R. vaccine can contribute to causing either autism or gastrointestinal dysfunction….”

While expressing “deep sympathy and admiration” for the family, he ruled that they had been “misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment.”

Paul Offit’s Autism False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure examines the ways in which some doctors and researchers have led families with autistic children astray and diverted time and resources away from better understanding the causes of and possible cures for autism.

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Links Between Vaccines and Autism Were Fabricated

Paul OffitIn Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, Paul Offit looks at the history of autism research and shows the ways in which some researchers have misled the public by asserting a connection between vaccines and autism. Andrew Wakefield, a London doctor was one of the first and most prominent figures claiming a link between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and autism.

Now, according to an investigation by the Times of London, it turns out that Andrew Wakefield changed and misreported findings in his research to create the appearance of a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Wakefield’s manipulated findings first appeared in The Lancet in 1998 and had an extraordinary impact: inoculation rates in Britain dropped while cases of measles jumped from 58 in 1998 to 1,348 in 2008.

Andrew Wakefield must now defend himself against allegations of serious professional misconduct brought by the General Medical Council.

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Signs of Spring

While the weather in New York City seems to be returning to more February-like temperatures, the fact that our Spring 2009 books are shipping out to store is perhaps a sign that Spring is just around the corner.

We had meant to put this up earlier but you can download our Spring 2009 catalog to find out about all the forthcoming titles from Columbia University Press.

One of the first books from our Spring 2009 catalog now available is Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity, by Alan Wallace. Here is the first part of a discussion with Alan Wallace about his book. For the entire discussion visit the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Youtube channel:

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

A Portrait of Mississippi

A Portrait of MississippiMississippi has long had the reputation for being one of the poorest and most stratified states in the United States but how accurate is that assessment in 2009? According to the just published A Portrait of Mississippi, the state ranks last on the American Human Development Index. Some groups in the state enjoy well-being levels similar to those in top-ranked Connecticut, while others experience levels of human development of the average American nearly a half century ago.

The authors of The Measure of America: American Human Development Report, 2008-2009 have recently completed A Portrait of Mississippi, which can be downloaded for free at measureofamerica.org. The new report on applies the Human Development Index to Mississippi, measuring the quality of life in the state by considering the capability to earn a decent living, to have access to a quality education and affordable health care, to enjoy cultural liberty, and other factors. The approach was first developed by the United Nations to measure third-world countries.

The report reveals both the poor quality of education in the state as well as the continuing discrepancies among Whites and African Americans in income and health. You can read some of the main findings and recommendations here. And, below is one of the reports main recommendations for improving the standard of living:

Ensure that working families can make ends meet. White men in Mississippi are, on average, earning about $5,000 more per year than the typical American worker today. But African American women today earn less than the typical American in 1960; African American men earn what typical Americans earned in 1970; and white women what typical Americans earned in 1980. More than one in five Mississippians lives below the poverty line; nearly seven in ten public school stu­dents qualifies for a subsidized lunch. Other states help working families meet a basic monthly budget with a state earned income tax credit, state minimum wages, affordable housing, affordable health care options, and subsidized childcare. Such policies help to create an infrastructure of opportunity for all.

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

The International Film Guide Launches at the Berlin Film Festival

International Film GuideAmid the movie stars and acclaimed directors populating the 52nd Annual Berlin Film Festival was the launch of the The 45th edition of the International Film Guide: The Definitive Annual Review of World Cinema.

The International Film Guide includes a “World Survey” section encompassing the cinematic output and film industry trends and developments in more than 120 countries, written by expert local correspondents who present critical reviews assessing features, documentaries and shorts. The cover image of the 2009 Guide is from the award-winning Israeli film Waltz with Bashir.

Special features this year include the 5 Directors of the Year (including John Sayles, Paolo Sorrentino, Angès Varda, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Hayao Miyazaki), a “Country Focus” on the expanding Israeli Film Industry, an Industry Focus on digital distribution and a Special Report on the 2004 expansion of the European Union covering the development of cinema in the ten new member countries—Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The 450-page reference book also includes detailed breakdowns of international box office statistics and film festival award-winners, plus detailed listings and descriptions of hundreds of International Film Festivals.

Monday, February 9th, 2009

One Hundred Fifty Years Without Darwin Is Too Long!

Donald ProtheroThe following post is by Donald Prothero, author of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. You can also read his earlier post, Evolution: The Fossils Say Yes.

As we mark the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth on February 12, and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species in November 2009, the world also reflects on the beginning of a scientific revolution that profoundly changed not only biology, but also the way we view ourselves and think about our place in nature. Evolutionary theory has come a long way since 1859, developing into a robust science that beautifully explains nature. The fact that life evolves has not been controversial in scientific circles since Darwin’s death in 1882. It has been demonstrated again and again by amazing evidence from the fossil record (see my Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters [New York: Columbia University Press, 2007]). Not only do we have irrefutable proof from fossils that organisms have evolved over millennia, but we can watch evolution in action at many shorter timescales, from the viruses and bacteria that evolve and trigger a new cold and flu season each year; to the pests that evolve resistance to every insecticide we develop, threatening our crop production; to other examples of plants and animals that evolve over years or decades, painstakingly documented by field biologists who work under harsh conditions with little reward.

Evolutionary biology has brought us enormous practical benefits, from deciphering the nature of infection, disease, and pesticide resistance; to better appreciating our peculiar anatomy (see Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish [New York: Vintage, 2008]); to determining the likelihood of a cross-species organ transplant being rejected. More important, the study of evolution is the key to understanding all of nature. It is the central thread that connects all the branches of biology: genetics, embryology, biogeography, systematics, and behavior, among many other fields. As the great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Although there is no dispute in the scientific research community that evolution occurs and has occurred, the United States finds itself in the peculiar situation of virtual scientific illiteracy. Poll after poll shows that most Americans are appallingly ignorant when it comes to basic science. We always rank at the bottom of the list, with countries like Turkey and Croatia, while the top of the list is dominated by western European nations plus Iceland, Canada, and Japan. What do all these scientifically literate countries have in common? Science is taught in their schools without interference from meddlesome religious minorities. In particular, they have no significant creationist movements to torment school boards or influence politicians. Only the United States can claim the dubious distinction of having the best scientific labs in the world and most of the world’s Nobel Prize winners in science, along with a population that is as scientifically backward as that of a third world country. Now that many blue-collar and white-collar jobs have migrated overseas, what will happen to our country if one of our few remaining advantages—supremacy in scientific research—is destroyed by Luddites who fear science because it tells them what they don’t want to hear?


Friday, February 6th, 2009

Happy Birthday Charles!

February 12, 2009 marks Darwin Day, the 200th anniversary of the birth of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin. That’s a lot of candles on his cake.

Donald Prothero, author of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters is having a particularly busy week celebrating Darwin Day. You can catch him at one of several events he is doing in upstate New York in honor of Darwin’s birthday.

February 11, 2009, 4:00 PM
SUNY Oswego
Campus Center Auditorium, room 118,
Oswego, NY 13126

February 12, 2009, 4:00 PM
Life Sciences Auditorium
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY 13244
Charles Darwin

February 13, 2009, 3:00 PM
Colgate University
Olin Hall-Love Auditorium
Colgate University
Hamilton, NY 13346

February 14, 2009, 3:00 PM
Cornell University
G10 Biotech Building
Ithaca, NY 14853

Can’t make it to an event? Listen to a podcast interview with Prothero here along with other media coverage of Evolution. You can also read a post that Prothero wrote for this blog last year laying out the errors of creationism and intelligent design.

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

NGOs in Gaza: Humanitarianism vs. Politics by Hugo Slim

Hugo Slim

Hugo Slim, author of Killing Civilians: Method, Madness, and Morality in War, recently published an essay in Open Democracy arguing that the noble urge of aid agencies to support Palestinians is too often compromised by a blind eye to uncomfortable realities.

In the article, “NGOs in Gaza: humanitarianism vs politics,” Slim argues that some NGOs have compromised their stated mission of trying to help those in need by “taking sides” with the Palestinians:

This professional obligation is increasingly compromised by the trend for modern NGOs to bend complex political realities into a classic liberal schema of righteous victim and malevolent oppressor. This satisfying trope can then allow self-mandated civil-society groups to use their aura of humanitarian impartiality to promote a partisan attitude. NGOs tend to do this wherever they are; but some humanitarian workers find it hard to maintain standards of professional independence where the Palestinians in particular are concerned.

Slim argues that not only do some NGOs overlook the atrocities caused by Hamas but their declared solidarity for the Palestinians perpetuates Palestine’s dependency on outsiders: