La mystérieuse affaire de Yasser Arafat

In recent news, the widow of the poor unfortunate old Arafat authorized the exhumation of his remains for further forensic testing. The rumor that he had been poisoned had never gone away. Arafat died in 2004, or was murdered, depending on which rumors you believe. So far, two forensic teams have completed investigations of this case. Swiss, Russian and French scientific teams gained access to the remains for independent analysis in November 2013.

According to Aljazeera, “Swiss scientists who conducted tests on samples taken from Yasser Arafat’s body have found at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive polonium in his remains. The scientists said that they were confident up to an 83 percent level that the late Palestinian leader was poisoned with it, which they said “moderately supports” polonium as the cause of his death.”

According to Reuters, “The French report concluded that some of the radioactivity could be explained by the presence of radon gas in the tomb where Arafat was buried. The Swiss experts said on the contrary that the level of radon gas was due to the radioactivity in his body.”

The French team found the radioactive gas radon on the outside of Arafat’s clothing. If, Reuters cited the French finding accurately, the French said they found “some of the radioactivity could be explained by the presence of radon gas,” there is no explanation for the phrase “some of the” unless there were also other sources of radioactivity.

Having the advantage of unlimited access to the results of the autopsy, which was conducted in Paris where Arafat died, the French said that Arafat died of a stroke which was a complication of a severe bacterial infection, which was the original 2004 finding. So, they ruled the cause of death to be illness.

Thorium and uranium decay byproducts include radium, and its decay product radon. Radon has a half-life of 3.8 days. Polonium is a radioactive metal found naturally in uranium and thorium ores.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “Polonium-210 (Po-210) is a radioactive element that occurs naturally and is present … Because Po-210 is produced from the decay of radon-222 gas.”

This directly contradicts the Swiss opinion as reported by Reuters, that “the level of radon gas was due to the radioactivity in his body.” If the Swiss were quoted accurately, that would represent a huge disconnect with physics.

Polonium is produced from the decay of radon, not the other way around, so radon is not “the smoking gun” for polonium poisoning.

On the other hand, if it is true that radon detected on the burial clothing was just the result of naturally occurring concentration, it would be unreasonable to expect French scientists to report an even tinier trace of polonium, a naturally occurring decay product.

So far, there is no news report that either Swiss or French have exchanged results of their independent investigations, why they did or didn’t attach any particular relevance to the radioactivity connection, or detailed reasons for their conclusions. The French report is still preliminary at this writing, because news of it was leaked.

A number of obvious questions seem to remain unanswered. There is no clear consensus whether the radiation source was polonium or radon; they attributed it only to naturally occurring radon where it collects in underground spaces such as tombs. In either case, radioactivity is hazardous to the health, and there is a huge discrepancy between the highly abnormal polonium concentration found by the Swiss, and naturally occurring levels of radon found by the French.

If the Swiss scientists identified polonium by a combination of chemical tests and spectroscopy, a mistaken identification seems extraordinarily improbable. Also, the idea that they could mistakenly measure an 18-times concentration of that metal is quite implausible.

Samples for the independent tests would have been taken at the same point in time. It would be difficult to hypothesize that one set of samples contained polonium and the other did not. It will be interesting to learn what Russian scientists find.

Signs of radiation sickness would, all other things being equal, strike the elderly or infirm first. Arafat was both. The effects of radiation exposure are cumulative, and can affect the immune system in many ways. The effect of even medical radiation dosages on the immune system is already well known in hospitals.

Following this line of logic, it would appear that, if a strong source of radiation was actually present in or on the ailing Arafat, a “bacterial infection” might easily have resulted.

Staph infections, for example, are frequently contracted right in the hospital. This hypothesis would argue strongly in favor of a murder verdict, not against the medical facilities, but on unknown persons who might have caused the hospital death through a hard-to-trace chain of events initiated by poisoning Arafat with a radioactive substance.

Analysis appears further complicated by ambiguous news reporting on such a highly technical scientific subject.

Finally, there’s the unresolved question of who might have murdered Arafat. For the foreseeable future, this is a cold case that will never be solved without new discovery.

The popular theory in the Middle East, outside of Israel, is that the Israeli Mossad was responsible for this. Arafat became an internationally respected leader and a stabilizing force in Palestine, after co-brokering the Camp David Accords with Prime Minister Rabin. Arafat was most heavily criticized by Islamists, PLO leftists and Hamas for being too lenient in negotiations with Israel. This would tend to place Israel lower on a theoretical list of suspects, and PLO dissidents and similar militant factions, relatively higher.

The device of polonium poisoning is also associated with a number of sensational assassinations in Northern Europe, suspected to be the work of Soviet or Russian agents. But since scientific experts cannot even agree on evidence for or against these theories in the mysterious Arafat affair, blame is usually attributed to the political motivations of the accuser. If Arafat died as a result of foul play, there does not yet seem to be compelling evidence for any particular cause or agency.

Alex Forbes, December 4, 2013

Sources for this article


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Obama Says Texas Wildfires Linked to Climate Change

PolitiFact analyzed President Obama’s September 26 comment at a fundraising event, in which he said, “I mean, has anybody been watching the debates lately? You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change.”

If you’re not familiar with PolitiFact, you can check out political claims at the same way and for the same reason we check out viral online rumors at If you have an interest in the subject matter you should read the full PolitiFact article. It’s a good read and not that dense.

I found PolitiFact did a good job on their in-depth analysis of the President’s remark, which some White House aides dismissed as a tongue in cheek wise crack. After all, Perry is on record of being a climate-change denier, even as his state was ravaged by some of the worst fires on record – 3.8 million acres, to be exact.

PolitiFact rated the Obama statement “Half-True.” Cutting to the chase, scientists do not think it is good science to attribute a single event to a long-range phenomenon:

However, climate-change experts have also long urged caution in assuming that particular weather events are caused or influenced by climate change.

Consider a June 2011 paper published by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, an independent research organization. In the paper — titled “Extreme Weather and Climate Change Understanding the Link, Managing the Risk” — co-authors Daniel G. Huber and Jay Gulledge write that “when we ask whether climate change ‘caused’ a particular event, we pose a fundamentally unanswerable question.” In fact, they say it is “nonsense” to debate a direct climatological link between a single event and the long-term rise in the global average surface temperature.

The reason, Huber and Gulledge write, is the distinction between “climate” — a long-term pattern that averages many weather events over the years — and a particular weather event.

So we cannot say that any one specific forest fire, wildfire or hurricane is directly caused by climate change. What we CAN do is observe the long-range pattern of those events, and compare that to regional historical data. We can even say that increasing average temperatures may be expected to increase the incidence and severity of the events.

What no one can prove is that any one specific Texas fire was caused by global warming. Anyone can claim that it could have occurred anyway.

What they cannot say is that a long-range increasing trend in such events cannot be related to climate change. As long-range temperatures rise, average humidity goes down, long-range rainfall decreases, and any firefighter or forest ranger can guarantee us there will be more fires. Do the math.

Fine, but is there any evidence this incendiary uptrend is already occurring? The Pew study cited by PolitiFact addresses a fact of life already well known to residents of Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico, for example:

“There is a well-documented link between the earlier start of spring, higher summer temperatures, and drier conditions during summer and fall — that is, climate change — and a dramatic increase in wildfire activity in the western U.S. since the late 1980s,” he said. “These observations reveal an increase in fire risk due to climate change.”

So climate-change deniers aren’t off the hook. Are there are other phenomenon which ARE directly related to climate change? Yes. Rising sea levels, for example, are already the cumulative global result of many individual events as snowpack, glaciers and icecaps melt in the mountains, on the fjords, and at Earth’s poles.

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Science Denial and the Texas Board of Education

In another century and simpler time (1999) I wrote my signature article about the Kansas Board of Education (KBOE)  — dissecting our massive modern schism between science and biblical literalism. We didn’t even have the term “science denial” in those comparatively innocent days.

Darwin’s world of science clashes once again with the recidivist views of those who would turn the pages of the world body of knowledge back to the Roman Catholic Inquisition of 1615.  That nearly executed Galileo for  heliocentric blasphemy.

How have we fared since? We deplore all sorts of agenda-driven rhetoric when the source is the Taliban extremism of Mideastern Islamic fatwas.  We somehow condone it as just another opinion if it comes from Christian fundamentalism and Holy Roller biblical literalism.

American regional sectarianism is celebrated with equal parts amusement and proof of our rich cultural tradition of diversity and tolerance, but no one so far has seriously suggested the private religious beliefs of one or more of those regional cults should drive national government policy.

Nor has anyone yet seriously challenged Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State” [Wikipedia]

Libertarians preach that “this kind of [science-oriented] government interference is intolerable”, yet their evangelical supporters have brought interference in education and dumbing-down of our children to a whole new level.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously  quipped “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” He’s currently enjoying a well-deserved revival.

As commentators in science, media and education note with alarm, we find GOP frontrunner candidates Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann on record as questioning both global warming and evolution itself. Evangelical Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry told a school child on national TV that evolution was a theory that has “got some gaps.” So as to avoid conveying the false impression that Texas encourages the same science education that propelled America into the post-Sputnik Age of the 1950’s, he claims schoolchildren there are taught both “theories” as if both have equal credibility. There’s grave danger that science denial will actually storm through the doors of the White House in 2012.

The respected conservative Dr. Charles Krauthammer (a political commentator and Harvard-trained physician presumably well grounded in science) stated yesterday on Inside Washington that Global Warming has to be looked at seriously, but is still a theory. Qualifying that, he explained that man-made CO2 injection into the atmosphere is geologically unprecedented, but Earth has self-healing counter-mechanisms such as carbon sequestration (all true enough) … so we should look at the phenomenon more carefully before investing trillions in greener energy resources.

“I’m perturbed when I hear Republicans talk about Evolution as a theory like Keynesian economics,” Krauthammer says. Scientists say “it’s so” of global warming and Krauthammer says “it probably is,” but he questions the scientific models predicting the scope and intensity of potential disaster.

That may work in practice, but it won’t hold up in theory.

To the anti-science Republican Party that invented the “if it walks like a duck” theory of fact validation, it would seem the “it’s just a theory” dismissal of global warming would be more plausible if the polar cap were icing over, the Northwest Passage refroze, polar bears were thriving on an ice floe paradise, ocean levels were dropping, air quality was as good as Mauna Kea’s globally, and Phoenix was hitting summertime highs of 86.

In a bizarrely dangerous reversal of separation of church and state, science education is now politicized to a degree that wouldn’t have been tolerated a decade ago or two. Covering this epidemic was this morning’s PBS “Need to Know,” which presented a short section on the herculean effort of the Texas Board of Education (SBOE) to rewrite history and science in the Texas classroom.

Episode #168H Duration: 56:46 STEREO
TEXAS TEXTBOOKS – Despite Governor Perry’s statement that Texas schools teach evolution and creationism, Texas recently voted not to add creationism or intelligent design to its science texts. But the actions of the state’s school board continue to be closely watched by the nation. NTK caught up with the Board last May, as it was considering changes to be made in its social studies curriculum – changes that critics said inserted politics and religious beliefs into textbooks. Shot in Austin, Mt Pleasant and Bryan Texas. Interviews include Don McLeroy (SBOE), Thomas Raitliff (SBOE), and Kathy Miller (TX Freedom Network).

For anyone who has followed science denial for the last decade, there is little new in the theory of revisionism here, but the level of micro-management has escalated in the choice of religiously “correct” science and history and even in the choice of English textbook words used to describe those studies.

For example, SBOE members objected to the frequent textbook use of the word “propaganda” to describe U.S. Government efforts to rally public support for the World War I and II war efforts. To them, “propaganda” only connotes the sort of lies the bad guys promoted in wartime Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, or anything President Obama says. The SBOE voted to substitute a neutral word like “public information” in Texas history books.

PROPAGANDA: Official government communications to the public that are designed to influence opinion. The information may be true or false, but it is always carefully selected for its political effect. —

“Propaganda” is also used to educate about the need for rationing, conservation, job creation and other vital public concerns. It is a legitimate dictionary word with a rich historical backdrop. In point of fact, a government information campaign to “Buy War Bonds” is propaganda whether we approve or not.   As for the negative connotation of the word, maybe it hits too close to home. That is exactly what the SBOE is doing, and it must be stopped.

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Readings on Tourette’s Syndrome and Science Denial

A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger — Chris Mooney, quoted in Mother Jones

Some of our best friends do it. I recently became interested in writing an article about the rationale behind science denial, but frankly its complex underpinnings baffled me. We see perfectly ordinary people as well as exceptional people, both passionately opposed on principle to massively overwhelming evidence that mankind’s unrelenting injection of billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere is changing our climate. What drives normally reasonable people to conclusions, say, as extreme as the followers of Harold Camping’s Family Radio religious group who spread their message of doom prophesied for May 21?

“To the shock and distress of a handful of ultra-devout Christian believers, the sun went down yesterday on an America and a world that had signally failed to end. Instead of a series of earthquakes hitting successive countries at 6pm local time and heralding The Rapture – in which millions of the Faithful would ascend to heaven before the Second Coming of Christ – planet Earth simply carried on and, mostly, kept calm.” —

We’ve all seen down-and-out individuals shuffling down the street shouting obscenities. I always assumed this to be just the end result of too many drug and alcohol overdoses combined with the harsh circumstance of the life of the addicted and homeless. According to Wikipedia “Tourette’s was once considered a rare and bizarre syndrome, most often associated with the exclamation of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks (coprolalia), but this symptom is present in only a small minority of people with Tourette’s.”

Can individuals learn to control the symptoms of science denial? Continue reading

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Evolution and Fake Science

From Darwin to DSC and Intelligent Design

Amazon Book link [available for pre-order]

Here we’ll discuss the science of Evolution, the religious views of Creationism and Intelligent design, and we’ll move briefly to Theology, Politics and Rhetoric, tracing the pattern set by the Discovery Institute, which follows a manifesto for the remaking of America … in its own image.

Ever since the naturalist Charles Darwin published his famous On the Origin of Species, the western world seems to have progressively divided into two camps: those who see the advances of scientific investigation in the past 150 years as overwhelming evidence we can no longer regard the “theory” of evolution as mere theory, and those who see Evolution as an unproven threat to Christian interpretations of Biblical Creation.

We all know that several school districts have, at various times, banned the teaching of Evolution and ordered the teaching of Creationism. Since the famed Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee (which Clarence Darrow lost), the courts have ruled with remarkable consistency that teaching Creationism in the classroom constitutes a violation of the constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state. Hoping to make an end run around the courts and public opinion, proponents of intelligent design seek to reformulate Creationism into an intellectually defensible scientific theory, complete with documentation, footnotes and the jargon of science. The new thrust: since they’re both theories, why, in “fairness”, should schoolchildren be denied a learning opportunity about the other theory?

The current controversy is no longer so much what people are free to believe, but what constitutes legitimate science, and whether we remain free to teach scientific inquiry. Continue reading

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Science Looks At The Economy

Interesting: as the economy goes south, just as any other sector, the scientific world is impacted. When science is impacted, scientific inquiry turns greater attention to root causes. We have before cited articles originating in the scientific and mathematics communities about cultural phenomena. Mathematicians like Mandelbrot looked at financial forecasting instead of cotton markets and recursive geometric patterns. Scientific American looked at overreliance on financial software and the perennial debate between science and religion.
Continue reading

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Of Bubbles and Butterflies

Chaos and Financial Markets II

The following story is based on true events. The characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to characters living or dead is entirely unintentional. Close cover before striking.

Rupert and Millie Paltridge, of Silver Springs, Maryland, were considering spec properties in the Phoenix area as a vacation home. “And we could even retire there,” Millie would always say. Prices were at historic highs, thanks to the national boom in real estate. They found a really upscale condo in a new development project outside tony Scottsdale. The year was early 2005. The asking price was $580,000. The development even had its own Starbucks. “We can’t afford this,” Rupert announced. But, friends explained they couldn’t afford NOT to get in on the housing market.
Continue reading

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Science vs. Religion: Debate Derailed?

An ages-old theme resurfaced in the current Scientific American, namely, the “problem” of whether there should even be a dialog between people of science and people of faith. Put that way, right there you can see the lines being drawn in the sand: if you are on the other side of that line, experience has taught me that you are the enemy, and we cannot even talk, and the real “problem” is one of “containment”: how do we draw a circle in the sand and confine you to it?

In the July feature article “Should Science Speak to Faith?” , Scientific American contributors Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss debate “about the best ways to oppose religiously motivated threats to scientific practice or instruction.” Both are scientists, both work in their spare time to keep Creationism out of the classroom, and they don’t always necessarily agree on methodology.
Continue reading

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DNA Database

Brave New World

Think of this, you future doomsayers and science fiction writers: with a DNA database and chemical sniffers, within 100 years nobody on the face of this planet will be able to run and hide.

[SF Chronicle special Saturday June 12] On the November ballot California voters will be asked to approve an initiative to escalate collection of DNA samples for the DNA database. California already requires collection of DNA samples on convicted felons. The initiative would change the requirement to include collection of DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony.

Law enforcement official would like to see the database expanded from its present size of 220,000 to over a million. The idea, of course, is that as long has you have a suspect under lock and key, why not find out what else the detainee might be suspected of?

We can be sure that this might result in more convictions for offenses unrelated to the charge leading to the original arrest. If this sounds like a fishing expedition to you, rest assured law enforcement officials on the federal level will be watching this to see how it goes over.

On the other hand, proponents argue this might result in more Cold Case crimes being solved, and how can we argue against that? As with increased anti-terrorism security restrictions, we tend to feel that no harm can come to us if we have nothing to hide. Slowly but surely, national security and low conviction rates trump the right to privacy.

And I have nothing to hide, either. What’s the beef?

Once upon a time, the accused was innocent until proven guilty. Domestically and internationally, a whole new generic citizen is being invented. Neither fish nor fowl, neither free person nor convicted criminal, this new category of person is both suspect and detainee, whose rights increasingly seem to be subordinate to the needs of the interrogators.

People of my generation mostly seem to believe it is already too late to stop this Brave New World. I will be too old to run and hide, and have no reason to anyway. Think of this, you future doomsayers and science fiction writers: with a DNA database and chemical sniffers, within 100 years nobody on the face of this planet will be able to run and hide. And, just think: both the technology and the legal-moral precedent will be made right here in the good old USA, the freest nation on Earth.

Alex Forbes ©June 15, 2004

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