With articles by the New York Times, CNN, and RF Kennedy Jr. , people keep asking whether autism is triggered by vaccines with mercury-based thimerosal. Here's a partial reading of the debate from a Jewish standpoint.
The debate about vaccines and autism requires us to judge correlations. For instance, does the onset of autism correlate to thimerosal vaccinations? More importantly, does the incidence of autism rise and fall with the level of mercury-based vaccinations in a population? Maybe there's data to support these correlations.
But are these spurious correlations between thimerosal and autism? Unfortunately, the question of spurious correlation is tough to answer. We lack adequate biochemical (etc.) knowledge of how mercury effects the spectrum of autism(s).  It’s also difficult to identify and eliminate other triggers (besides vaccines) of autism(s). Furthermore, epidemiological correlations are hard to substantiate because we are not running a controlled experiment on human children.
Instead, critics might say we are running a massive uncontrolled experiment with thimerosal. Keep in mind, though, that there is an enormous health benefit associated with vaccines. Fortunately, thimerosal has been eliminated from some vaccines. Yet, policymakers are continuing with the virtual experiment with mercury-tinged vaccines because these are still the best vaccines for the flu. (And influenza is a serious health threat, as you can see by checking the spanking new wiki flu website set up by Effect Measure and friends.)
Turning now to my Talmudic daf yomi readings. To a modern reader, the rabbis are dealing with a problem of correlation: do amulets protect the health of animals? (bShab 53b) If amulets truly correlate with health, then they may be carried on Shabbat. If amulets do not work (= if amulets and health are a spurious correlation), then carrying them is a form of prohibited sabbatical work.
Lacking biochemical (etc.) knowledge of sickness, the rabbis judged the efficacy of amulets by two critera (bShab 61): medical efficacy and expertise. First, amulets are deemed effective if they cure or prevent sickness three times (3x); Second, healers are deemed experts if their amulets cure three times (3x). Wisely, the rabbis did not assume that amulets that cured humans would necessarily work with animals. 
By these Talmudic criteria, one might be inclined to approve thimerosal vaccines. Vaccines prevent diseases at a high rate. Conversely, there are scanty correlations to argue that thimerosal vaccines cause autism. Furthermore, the scientists who proclaim that thimerosal is linked to autism are vastly outweighed (in number and reputation) those scientists who question the alleged link to autism. (see, e.g., Autism Diva on Geiers, Orac on Kirby) Looking at the quality of experts and the data, one might expect Jewish law (halakhah) to favor the use of thimerosal vaccines.
However, these Talmudic criteria may not be sufficient. After all, Jewish law here judges amulets only in terms of Shabbat. The downside to poor judgment on an amulet was small. With a mercury-based vaccine, the downside to poor judgment might be an increased incidence (but not an epidemic) of autism. Or unvaccinated exposure to disease. Furthermore, there is the hermercurial factor: Kennedy is right that the pharmaceutical industry is investing well in Bill Frist and other politicians. It would be best if we could avoid the thimerosal choice altogether.
Therefore, with so much at stake, there are forceful reasons to find/fund alternative vaccines and public health measures to tackle flu and the remaining diseases now fought with mercury-derived vaccines. Plus, the precautionary reduction in U.S. and Eurpoean thimerosal use should be applied to Third World countries, too. Meanwhile, in Jewish communities, let's think about vaccination decisions by parents and the needs of autistic children (cp. programs in Balitmore MD and Newton, Mass.). Kol tuv,
 Excepting, e.g., Deth study cited by Dwight Meredith
 Starting with the gemara at bShab 61a-b, Talmudists apply the 3x criteria with permutations involving 3 different amulets, diseases, patients, or healers. Unwisely, some drugs have been marketed to humans based merely on animal testing results. Prime example: thalidomide.
News Release: AndrewSullivan.Com (aka The Daily Dish) announced today that it will repossess by eminent domain a hitherto unknown Jewish blog, Quicksilver כספית. After a vote of 24-7 among the top political blogs, it was determined that one-month old Quicksilver כספית served an ill-defined purpose (somewhere between Talmud and technology policy). Mr. Sullivan argued that Quicksilver and its URL (kaspit.typepad.com) could be easily put to better "Public Use", as defined recently by the Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London.
According to the DailyKos, Technorati predicts that it would take Quicksilver approx. 395 months at its current rate of growth to dish out the Public Use already offered by AndrewSullivan.Com today.
The pundits, polls and press have spoken. But I’m not ready to jump on the bandwagon against the Supreme Court decision on Kelo v. New London (eminent domain). For a Jewish hermecurial critique of toxicality and business, I would like to see more analysis (iyyun) of the implications for business and its environmental effects on (etc). The Kelo decision may imply that governments will empower more “public use” development into various conservation lands. Yikes. (Still, such powers preceded Kelo and have been used to expand wilderness. Over-development is a huge problem beyond pre-existing eminent domain law. Is this a teiqu?)
What’s missing in the analysis of Kelo? A nagging problem: How does Kelo fit into long-range “takings” strategies to gut government regulation of environmental and occupational health? For more than a decade, corporations have organized legislation, litigation and ‘grassroots’ efforts to undermine environmental laws as “regulatory takings”. As John Echeverria (Georgetown Environmental Law and Policy Institute) explains:
Advocates of the modern "takings" agenda go beyond the original understanding of the taking clause and Supreme Court precedent to argue that regulations which limit the potential value of land and other property frequently result in takings. According to this view, takings occur under a wide variety of local, state and federal rules — from zoning regulations, to historic landmark laws, to wetlands permitting requirements, to habitat protection measures, to cite just a few examples.
Philosophical opponents of government regulation, and interest groups which stand to benefit from this agenda, have seized upon the takings issue as a political tool for seeking to confine the sphere of democratic decision-making. If the public had to pay every time a government official enforced some rule or regulation, there would obviously be far less regulation; at the same time, however, other property owners and other citizens protected by environmental protection standards or other laws would suffer economic, environmental, and other harms.
The only way that the Supreme Court could legitimately have found for Suzette Kelo et al. is by saying that takings with the "public purpose" of "economic development" are unconstitutional. That's a very short step away from saying that takings with the public purpose of, say, reducing pollution is illegitimate as well. The libertarians at the Institute for Justice, who brought the case in the first place, know that full well.
Scott Lemieux (Lawyers Guns and Money blog) said prior to the decision: “To get the Supreme Court in the business of determining what is an adequate "public interest" is a very, very dangerous game, and one that is likely to have a lot of bad consequences. Just as the Rehnquist Court has developed the idea of a "regulatory taking" in order to make environmental and zoning regulations more expensive, Kelo could result in a significant number of public policy options being taken off the table.” (emphasis added)
Lemieux has offered a similar analysis since the decision. “I am sympathetic to the defendants, who were forced to sell their property for what seems to me like a boondoggle…. But once the courts start making determinations about what constitutes the "public interest," the Court becomes an all-purpose economic regulator, and history makes it quite clear that this is a state of affairs that is not good for democracy or for progressive interests in the long run.… You beat them the way the West Side Stadium was beaten; through politics. Expecting the courts to protect poor property owners by determining which policies are legitimate public interests is a sucker's bet.”
The concern here is that cases involving of individual owners are used as precedents to undermine the legal foundations for environmental and other regulations on corporate conduct. Now, let’s assume that New London is acting unfairly against the individual owners in this case. It’s not clear to me whether an abuses of eminent domain should be reined in by judicial exceptions (i.e., equity), political intervention, or – as the libertarians want – a reinterpretation of the Constitution.
How does government (ab)use of eminent domain against individuals tie into government regulation of big business tie into? Part of the tie-in is private property. So we need to ask, can’t we distinguish between the rights of individual owners, mom and pop stores, etc. and the rights of industrial corporations and other big business?
Unfortunately, U.S. legal doctrine treats the corporation as a person. So, the more libertarians work to expand the rights of individual private property, the more they expand the claims of Exxon, WR Grace, Dow, Halliburton, and other multinationals to be “liberated” from government regulation and oversight. Can we both protect individuals from big government and, at the same time, empower big government to restrain and regulate industrial businesses?
It would be an interesting exercise to see how Talmudic law might untangle the knots that American law has tied itself into over big business regulation. Jewish law does posit a version of eminent domain for public uses. (e.g., mSanh 2:3, mBB 6:7) In the medieval period, rabbis assigned eminent domain and other public powers to the “seven trustees” of the city. For more info: David Novak, Covenantal Rights: A Study in Jewish Political Theory (pp.209-213) and this Jan 2005 article by Allan Arkush in Polity.
Furthermore, Jewish law can readily differentiate between the property interests of individuals and corporations. Indeed, Jewish law does not necessarily even admit the limited liability corporation as a valid entity (except via the validity of secular commercial law). We might imagine, therefore, that rabbinic judges could restrain eminent domain such as to prevent governmental abuses and, at the same time, they would not handcuff the government from its environmental regulation of the business sector.
Today ends my first month into blogging. One positive result is that I've been invited to join a team blog on daf yomi, Reclaiming the Daf. Hope you check them out and other bloggers on the daf (listed on the side here), some more consistent or in-depth in their coverage of the Talmudic text. I think we've another ~2,600 pages to go, but who's counting?! Kol tuv.
For a couple of daf yomi weeks, we’ve read about the Jewish laws of thermodynamics. Ok, not exactly, but the Talmud faces a dilemma: every kid wants a hot lunch, but Scripture tells us not to light a fire on Shabbos. Assuming delicious cold soups had not yet been invented, what’s a balabusta to do?
The basic problem is entropy. It’s the second law of thermodynamics. Not as good as the first law, but we try harder. With back-up vocals by Jeremy Rifkin (author of Entropy). Closed systems lose heat. (But so do drafty rooms, is that a refutation?) So, a coal or wood fire gradually burns out unless, against the shabbos laws, you keep fueling it or stoking the embers. Serving hot food for Friday night is no problem, but a hot lunch for Saturday is a challenge.
Entropy also signifies the break down in the order of a system. For instance, as I’ve tried to report on relevant news events the last two weeks and read daf yomi (and sustain a non-blog life, parenthetically), I’ve only had time to jot down a few notes on chapter 2 of masechet shabbat. Perhaps the following thoughts will coalesce into a larger commentary, or maybe you can warm up these leftovers and make something substantial.
1. Although rabbinic rules aim to prevent cooks from stoking a fire on shabbat, Rabbi Oshaya argues that such rules are not needed for hot dishes which improve as they condense. This creates a virtual definition for cholent. (bShab 37a) Turnips and meat are eligible cholent ingredients, but not figs and dates, which taste entropically worse. Some rabbis find shivelled eggs to be delicious.
2. Not all fuels are alike because some fuels, e.g. straw, do not create coals. (38b) Also, new technologies require the rabbis to formulate rules for a range of cooking ranges.
3. Solar energy cannot be used to cook eggs on the Sabbath, if it requires the heating of a derivative cooking surface, like sand or scarves (?!). (Note: Semi-hardboiled eggs may be tested by rolling, a trick I learned as a child, thank you Mom). However, it seems that a device (magnifying glass?) that concentrated the solar heat directly onto an egg would be permissible. Depending on the Jewish/Israeli demand for hard-boiled eggs on Shabbat, this may be a good opportunity for a solar energy entrepreneur. (38b-39a) Rabbinic law restricts fossil fuels yet makes a special exemption for solar energy technologies. (?)
4. Heating system entrepreneurs did come to Tiberias, where they set up hot water plumbing with the use of local hot springs. However, the sages forbade even this automated geothermal heating system because it heats up cold water in a manner analogous to manual fossil fuel methods. (39b) A similar precautionary measure (gezerah) is enacted to prohibit regular hot baths on shabbat, even with water heated previously. New geothermal technologies do not negate the overall need for investing in energy conservation on Shabbat.
5. At first, the sages forbade the use of manmade steambaths as well as bathing in the Tiberian hot springs. However, the Tiberians would not stand this injunction and kept using the springs. Therefore, the rabbis rescinded the order against use of the natural springs, but retained it against artificially heated steambaths. (bShab 40a) This incident reflects an important self-regulating principle of halakhah, which expects the rabbis not to make rulings that the people cannot abide by.
6. The talmudic analysis recognizes the net caloric difference between pouring hot water into cold and cold water into hot. (I remember that we had such problems in physics class but I forget how to solve them.)(bShab 42a) Though lacking instrumentation, the rabbis did try to measure and benchmark the points at which the target material and heat source would result in an act of cooking. (40b)
7. [For further analysis: intentionality and the principle of double effect. According to Rabbi Shimon, unless a prohibited consequence is inevitable, one could continue a permitted activity as long as the forbidden result is not intended. 41b-42a]
8. Thermodynamic properties entail variations in the capacity of materials to insulate or intensify heat. (39b) (Thankfully, this topic can be deferred for further unpolished notes on chapter three!)
Tentative hypothesis: The rabbis were aware of some basic thermodynamic properties and relationships. They differentiated between geothermal, solar and fossil fuel-based energy. They understood heat loss. However, they lacked the level of scientific knowledge and instrumentation that we have today to measure and formally conceptualize thermodynamic systems. Nevertheless, it is likely that they would have understood the greenhouse effect and global warming. Given their capacity to enact precautionary measures (gezerot), therefore, wouldn’t they have pushed for strong global warming legislation, at least* for Saturdays?
* Joking aside, since global warming may have serious health consequences, Jewish law would not limit the necessary energy consumption restrictions to Saturdays. Perhaps the observance of Shabbat, which incidentally reduces fuel use, may inspire Jewish support and inventiveness for sound energy policy.
Dr. Davis recalls Clarence Thomas from when he was chief legal counsel to Senator Danforth (at right). Thomas lent support in 1980 to the Superfund clean-up law (CERCLA), designed for communities threatened by hazardous waste sites. Thomas was especially helpful after an attack by the chemical industry fronted by the DC law firm Covington and Burling. She writes:
"All 100 Senators had received a detailed memo from the law firm of Covington and Burling that alleged that our report on human health damage from toxics was fatally flawed. … Clarence Thomas was one of those who cared a great deal about this issue. He spoke quietly about his own understanding of pollution in African American communities. .… in November, 1980, I was called back to meet with Senators and staff in a flurry of activities aimed at convincing the new government to accept the proposed Superfund Law. The law's sponsors believed that this major new act would provide for massive funding needed to clean up sites such as Triana* and Times Beach, by taxing those polluters with what were called the deepest pockets-those with the most money left. Whatever objections the legal memo had been believed to carry about our research on compensation for victims of toxic pollution seemed to vaporize. The Superfund law passed only after those like Senator Danforth and Clarence Thomas advised the incoming president's newly forming staff that this law would be better than what else they could end up with later on." (emphasis added)
Dr. Davis also discloses how, a decade later, she accidentally met the chemical industry lobbyist behind the Covington and Burling memo: "Ed Frost, former Vice President of the Chemical Manufacturer's Association, the very fellow who had commissioned the Covington and Burling memo on our study. …" said to me:
"Listen, I really owe you an apology. My daughter has convinced me that we need to do better on these things. I know that we should not have been so heavy handed in going after that report you all did on toxic pollution in those communities. You guys did a pretty decent job on a hard topic. But that was just how the game was played, you know." (emphasis added)
Ok, now I need to return to daf yomi (Talmud study). The rabbinic text seems completely unrelated to the stories above about corporate lobbying on toxic pollution. Still, there may be an odd metaphorical connection. We're reading about shabbat as a day of rest for animals, too. So, can various animals be let out in public tightly leashed, restrained in a halter, with its udders tied up, put under a saddle? This discussion makes me wonder:
What happens to people like Clarence Thomas, Ed Frost and each of us, how do we act privately and how do we act after we are leashed to new jobs, e.g., Supreme Court Justice or corporate lobbyist? Comments welcome.
* Robert Bullard on Triana: " 'Black Love Canals' exist and many go unnoticed. A case in point is the contamination of Triana, a small, all-black town in northern Alabama. .. Some of the residents were contaminated with the highest levels of DDT ever recorded." Read more here. Thomas/Danforth photo: source.
Today the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) sent out a press statement to thank Senators Bingaman (D-NM), Domenici (R-NM), and Specter (R-PA) for leading a resolution in favor of mandatory greenhouse gas controls. It also said: “we are disappointed that the Senate did not adopt the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act (S.1151).”
Vice President Sen. Lieberman made what might be termed a bland "Judeo-Christian" appeal yesterday for the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act (S.1151): “We are blessed to live on God’s good Earth. Right at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, God instructed Adam and Eve to not only work the Garden but to guard it. We are working the Garden but we’re not guarding it as well as we should.”
Any suggestions for a more prophetic or hermercurial * word from Jewish sources to deal with the Senate on global warming?
My vote, off the top of my head: “I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.” etc. Lev. 26:19ff.
(From daf bShab 33a: For not letting the land rest, the Sages warn that “exile comes to the world, invaders exile the inhabitants and other come and settle in their place.” … well, not ideal, it’s a start.)
To voice your support/opinion to COEJL, you can contact their DC office at: dcoffice @ coejl.org Thanks, Kaspit
* Hermercurial: a critique of the material and commercial world through the interpretation of significant texts, such as rabbinic texts. [a definition-in-progress]
According to Confined Space, the Republican's "latest attempt at light sentencing is the WR Grace Bailout Asbestos Bill which would establish a federal compensation trust fund of $140 billion for victims who can show they were harmed by asbestos products. The WR Grace Company is a named defendant in 129,000 personal injury suits and their executives have been criminally indicted for a conspiracy to cover up crimes, obstruction of a federal agency and fraud. The company made asbestos products and chemicals and was the defendant in the "Civil Action" case that received the Hollywood treatment. Independent experts put Grace's actual financial liability for compensating the many victims of their criminal negligence at somewhere between $1.6 billion and $3.2 billion. Under the Republican bailout bill (there are also some Democrat collaborators), Grace will pay into the trust fund an estimated $418 million and end all uncertainty about future liability from this source. Pretty good return on their lobbying investment."
Today's post is in memory of toxics activist John O'Connor, who got his start after a little league teammate died. O'Connor found out that an asbestos manufacturer (Raybestos) built a little league baseball diamond on its hazardous waste dump. Believe it or not: other little league fields built on toxic waste in Gardner Mass. and on asbestos in Montana (CorpWatch/WaPo; also reported by PBS).