The 4th Amendment doesn’t really matter

Mind you, I don’t believe in that title. It matters as much as any Amendment (and, in fact, much more so than many Amendments). The Supreme Court, however, thinks otherwise:

In a decision issued this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the police in a case arising from an officer’s “mistake of law.” At issue in Heien v. North Carolina was a 2009 traffic stop for a single busted brake light that led to the discovery of illegal drugs inside the vehicle. According to state law at the time, however, motor vehicles were required only to have “a stop lamp,” meaning that the officer did not have a lawful reason for the initial traffic stop because it was not a crime to drive around with a single busted brake light. Did that stop therefore violate the 4th Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure? Writing today for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts held that it did not. “Because the officer’s mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable,” Roberts declared, “the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment.”

A man driving in North Carolina was stopped illegally due to a cop’s ignorance. Let’s presume that the cop was genuinely ignorant of the law. (I fully accept such a premise, actually.) That does not mean that this interaction between citizen and state was entered into justly. For that to be the case, there are only a few ways it can happen: 1) if the man was suspected of committing a crime or of being in the act of committing a crime or of imminently committing a crime; the basis here is reasonable suspicion (it’s a low bar); 2) if the man was suspected of committing a civil infraction (such as a traffic violation – which, except for things such as criminal speeding or DUI, generally are not crimes); or 3) if a cop just starts talking to him and he decides to engage with the him/her. In this case, while the man did consent to his vehicle being searched (ya know, like an idiot), he did not consent to the initial interaction with the ignorant cop. The beginning of the interaction was initiated illegally, so that should have invalidated everything thereafter. Of course, it didn’t. We have a very bad Supreme Court. And an often unjust world. True justice here would have not only seen this case thrown out, but the cop would have been fired and prosecuted under some sort of color of law statute. But this is America. The case was upheld and I’m sure the cop will get a promotion soon (presuming he hasn’t already).

Aside from the violation of the Fourth Amendment, the really scary thing here is the power it gives to an already powerful police state. Everyone knows if a cop wants to pull a person over, that person will be pulled over. (I have a one black friend who has been pulled over close to 30 times in about 2 years. I’ve been in his car; he isn’t a reckless driver. He has clearly been targeted, and his “infractions” have clearly been fabricated. Even as a white guy, I’ve been targeted (albeit for different reasons). It hasn’t happened since I went from a rusty 20 year old car to a 5-6 year old car, but I’ve been pulled over several times for my license plate lights being out. The cops were lying each time. I was stopped for driving a car common to a low socioeconomic class while looking younger than I am. It’s that simple.) But now the police don’t even need to worry about whether or not they have a legitimate reason. So long as they claim to have pulled someone over for what seems like it could be an infraction, the courts will uphold it. Just imagine this: A longtime resident of, say, California moves to, say, Maine and becomes a cop. In California it’s illegal to talk on a handheld device while driving whereas it’s legal in Maine. It’s plausible this new Maine cop might pull someone over for talking on the phone. And there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do about this blatantly unconstitutional stop. Nothing.

Let’s extend this to Terry stops. These are stops where the police suspect a person of some sort of criminal activity, but they don’t have any probable cause to arrest. What stops the police from extending the principles they made up for this recent case to Terry stops? A person may be stopped by a cop for some completely legal action. The cop might then pat the person down ‘for officer safety’, soon discovering drugs or a gun. I know some statists will cheer and saw that’s great, but fuck them. That’s terrible. A person should never be stopped for zero reason, much less searched. The government hasn’t the right; it’s a massive danger to the citizenry to give the government such rights. But will the courts throw out all charges? It’s doubtful. If they follow the logic made up here, there is absolutely nothing to stop them from allowing the police to make all sorts of ‘honest’ mistakes in order to stop and search people. It’s not as if the police won’t lie – hell, that’s part of the job description – but at least they needed to come up with a plausible lie. Before this ruling there were always those oddball cases were a cop locked himself into a description of events that might get a case tossed. Not anymore. Now his fuck-ups and/or lies just need to seem like genuine oopsie-daisies.

I can’t say I’m surprised at this, though. As soon as I read about this case a few months ago, I explicitly told a friend that the Court would rule this way. I didn’t think it would be quite this lopsided, but there was never any doubt. This Court hates the Fourth Amendment. They aren’t consistent with the Constitution, but at least they’re consistent with being shitbags.

Circumcision: The evidence still isn’t vanishing

Increasingly, circumcision is becoming a health policy in places where it is needed most. WHO, UNAIDS, and especially The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are some of the groups are the forefront of this fight against deadly diseases and infections. More recently we’ve seen American groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics come out in favor of circumcision. This is in large part due to three extremely strong studies that came out in 2006, but those were really just the final straw. Evidence has been building for the effectiveness of circumcision in fighting disease and infection since the late 70’s, and more specifically it has been building against fighting HIV since the late 80’s. The evidence is in: Circumcision helps protect against infections, penile cancer, and STD’s, including HIV. It’s an extremely important tool that should be promoted around the world. And so, as the debate quickly pivots from whether or not circumcision is effective to figuring out why it is so damn effective, more organizations are coming out in favor of it in ever stronger terms:

U.S. health officials on Tuesday released a draft of long-awaited federal guidelines on circumcision, saying medical evidence supports the procedure and health insurers should pay for it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines stop short of telling parents to have their newborn sons circumcised. That is a personal decision that may involve religious or cultural preferences, said the CDC’s Dr. Jonathan Mermin.

But “the scientific evidence is clear that the benefits outweigh the risks,” added Mermin, who oversees the agency’s programs on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

I went into the circumcision debate many years ago without a dog in the fight. I was neither passionately against the practice nor fervently in favor of it; my general indifference parted greatly with what any Google search will show. However, as I began to hear more and more about the topic, and as I began to study global health issues more and more (especially during the time I was studying and volunteering my time in Haiti), I found my position slowly shifting. But it was indeed a very slow shift. With degrees in both biology and philosophy it was easy to be torn. The evidence had clearly tilted – at the least – in favor of circumcision, but what about the ethical arguments against it? I would need to resolve those concerns before I would support circumcision as a health policy. And that I did. The sole argument the anti-circumcision crowd has against circumcision is that it violates bodily autonomy. But so do other things which many in that crowd clearly support. Namely, vaccines can and do permanently change a person’s body for life without their consent. Looking at circumcision and vaccines, then, under the isolation of the argument from bodily autonomy, what’s the difference? They both change the body forever and neither is done with consent when done to infants/toddlers. The only responses I ever get to this is that vaccines are more effective or that the changes aren’t visible. Pshaw. They aren’t always more effective, and even where they are, so what? The argument from bodily autonomy doesn’t get to be put on the shelf when it’s convenient to ignore. The effectiveness of a procedure is irrelevant; all that matters is the necessity of the procedure. Vaccines and circumcision are both necessary to a healthier world, but neither is an absolute necessity to survival. Yes, more people will die without either, but that’s immaterial. And as for the changes being internal, I guess I wasn’t aware how aesthetics-focused the anti-circumcision crowd was.

I went on a bit of a rant there, but I hope it was effective. The ethical argument – singular, not plural – is weak. Yet the biological argument is strong. And as I learned more, it became quite clear that it was stronger than I initially thought. I freely admit that by the time I became involved in this debate (likely 2009, and as early as 2010 on FTSOS) I should have done all the proper research; I could have easily found myself where I am right now rather than going through a slow shift.

One of the things which always kept me tilted towards being pro-circumcision was the dogmatic attitude of the anti-circumcision crowd. It didn’t matter what evidence was presented to them, their ethical stance trumped everything. That would be fine, of course, since it would be a valid basis for opposition (even if I or anyone else disagrees with it). Unfortunately, this crowd has a habit of attacking perfectly valid science. PZ Myers did this back in 2011 when he said the following:

The health benefits. Total bullshit. As one of the speakers in the movie explains, there have been progressive excuses: from it prevents masturbation to it prevents cancer to it prevents AIDS. The benefits all vanish with further studies and are all promoted by pro-circumcision organizations. It doesn’t even make sense: let’s not pretend people have been hacking at penises for millennia because there was a clinical study. Hey, let’s chop off our pinkie toes and then go looking for medical correlations!

Emphasis mine. Clearly, whereas the organizations promoting circumcision as a health policy or recommendation have had a history of different positions on the matter, it’s ridiculous to say they’re inherently pro-circumcision. Moreover, the irony meter here is off the charts. The anti-circumcision crowd is incredibly vocal, despite being a scientific minority. Indeed, whereas the pro-circumcision groups came to their conclusions only after being presented with evidence, the anti-circumcision groups are composed entirely of people who oppose the practice on ethics first; they cherry-pick the science after the fact.

But that isn’t the important point here. As the title of this post says, the evidence of the benefits is not vanishing. It’s not vanishing with further studies. It’s not vanishing with time. It’s not vanishing at all. All we’ve been seeing is 1) more and more groups coming out in favor of the practice and 2) research focused on why it’s so effective. (Of course, all this criticism is coming from a guy who once had a debate with Jerry Coyne where he said that no evidence could ever convince him of the existence of God. While I share his lack of theistic belief, I don’t share his position here. I can’t imagine a more anti-scientific thing to say than that there is no possible evidence that could convince me of something. I could be convinced unicorns exist. I greatly doubt that will happen, but it’s possible; denying these possibilities when speaking in abstract terms is doltish.)

Anyway.

[The new guidelines] are likely to draw intense opposition from anti-circumcision advocacy groups, said Dr. Douglas Diekema, a Seattle physician who worked on a circumcision policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012.

“This is a passionate issue for them and they feel strongly that circumcision is wrong,” said Diekema, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

Indeed, the head of one group did argue against the CDC’s conclusions on Tuesday, saying they minimize potential complications from the procedure.

The guidelines “are part of a long historical American cultural and medical bias to attempt to defend this traumatic genital surgery,” said, Ronald Goldman, executive director of the Circumcision Resource Center.

Notice the name of the anti-circumcision group in that quote: Circumcision Resource Center. Hmm, what other group of people try desperately to sound legitimate despite everything they hold dear? Perhaps it’s the people who run sites and groups like Evolution News and the Discovery Institute and the Geoscience Research Institute – creationist groups. Honestly, I’m not sure who should be insulted more by this association.

Always ask: What did the police do to escalate the situation?

Whenever we hear of a police encounter, whether it be between two individuals or a crowd versus an entire department or a swat team raiding the wrong house or a cop shooting a dog (as they have a fetish to do), the first question we should ask ourselves is: What did the police do to escalate the situation? This isn’t the case with all police. Those of, say, Canada or France or Norway needn’t have this question follow them. But the police of places like Russia and Iran and the U.S. and China have earned it. It’s a question for police states.

Note that in addition to bringing in military toys, the police response here also included a violation of the guy’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Some times the quackery makes me laugh

There’s a lot that distresses me about naturopaths and other quacks. They are a genuine danger to the health of all those who encounter them. This may be in the form of an active danger – cases abound of them prescribing contra-indicated drugs – or it may be in the form of a more passive danger, such as when someone with an easily treatable but potentially deadly disease is misdiagnosed by one of these poorly trained charlatans – but they are a danger any way one wishes to look at it. That said, that doesn’t mean the ineffective methods of these quacks can’t be hilarious. Take this interview with Portland quack Sarah Kotzur:

To determine the best course of treatment, including an appropriate homeopathic remedy, Dr. Kotzur spends two hours with a new patient. “I’m trying to know you as a whole person,” she says. “I’m going to ask about what kind of dreams you have, what kind of food you crave. What is your body temperature? Do you sweat? Are you thirsty?”

Emphasis mine, hilarity Kotzur’s. One wonders how she decides to interpret this arbitrary information when ‘treating’ one of her ‘patients’. If the person has dreams where they can’t run fast, does that mean she prescribes a dose of treadmill time? Tough to tell, but I’d venture a guess that most of her ‘treatments’ come down to garlic, some sort of berry, and/or what is basically water.

The rest of the article goes into attempting to legitimize the practice by noting how it works with insurance and licensing:

Naturopathy has come a long way since the 1980s. There are currently six accredited schools of naturopathic medicine in the United States and 16 states now offer practice licenses. Maine has been licensing naturopathic doctors since 1996.

What the article failed to mention, and what naturopaths don’t want people to know, is that naturopathy is specifically banned in South Carolina and Tennessee. It isn’t medicine, it isn’t related to science, and every single one of its practitioners is a quack.

Thought of the day

Bond issues: Things invariably approved at the ballot box by voters who would disapprove of their representative voting for the exact same things on the floor of the state house.

Anti-science quacks find success in Maine in their fight against health and vaccines

Vaccine rates for young people entering school has been declining in recent years:

The rate of unvaccinated kindergartners in Maine continues to climb and is now the fifth highest in the nation, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday.

The percentage of Maine parents voluntarily opting out of vaccines for their children is alarming state public health officials who have been working to bolster immunization.

Nearly 800 public school kindergartners in Maine started the 2013-14 school year without receiving the required vaccinations for diseases such as whooping cough and measles because their parents opted not to immunize. That represents 5.2 percent of all kindergartners in the state, up from 3.9 percent the previous year.

This is in large part due to the anti-vax movement that has been steadily gaining ground since the 90’s. Indeed, although disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield had his 1998 study linking vaccines and autism debunked – no one ever reproduced his results, and it was no wonder since he outright made them up – he remains a hero of the anti-vax crowd.

One of the more favored canards of anti-vax quacks is to call herd immunity a myth. Do a quick search and one is liable to find any given quack claiming that herd immunity makes no difference to the health of a state. I recall reading some random anti-vax nobody argue that because vaccines are between 60-80% effective, even with 100% compliance, we could still see an epidemic. Of course, while he spoke of vaccines at-large in an intentionally general sense, he actually linked to CDC statistics on the flu vaccine. I guess it was a coincidence that he found it inconvenient to tell his readers that he was talking about one specific vaccine, huh? So is the high bar set by quacks.

At any rate, for herd immunity to be effective, there needs to be about a 95% vaccination rate. Of course, 100% would be the ideal because we’re talking about saving human lives, but with all the anti-government and anti-science kooks out there, 95% is actually a very achievable number that allows for some bumper space. Unfortunately, sometimes we see areas that fall well below that bumper space. For instance, when vaccine rates for whooping cough fell to 91% in California, communities there saw an outbreak in the disease. Thousands got sick and at least 10 infants died. What makes this all the more heart-breaking is that these infants were too young to be vaccinated, meaning they relied upon the herd immunity around them to remain safe. Anti-vax parents and the quacks they trust are at fault for these deaths. Frighteningly, Maine is on a similar path.

Thought of the day

It would be impossible to say one or another right is the utter cornerstone of a free and democratic society – they all work in tandem – but if I had to narrow it down to one right that I value more than any other*, it would be the right of free speech. Interestingly, this is the right that is under the greatest attack every day. From bad actors in positions of power to frivolous libel claims to unpopular groups not getting the support they deserve when their speech is threatened, free speech is one of those rights we all too frequently allow to fall by the wayside when it doesn’t benefit us personally.

*For reasons outlined here, I feel it’s necessary to state that this doesn’t mean I don’t greatly value other rights.

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