So birth control might cause depression, but could it also cure it?

Depression is a big deal. Over 300 million people are affected globally, it’s THE leading cause of disability globally, and it affects lots women more than men (2x for unipolar depression). Being depressed is bad for your physical health as well as your quality of life, although we still don’t understand a lot about the reasons for the inflammation that characterizes depression and its physical health correlates like heart disease. Sad. Let’s turn depression off.

Pregnancy is also a big deal. It carries a lot of serious health risks and costs, and then at the end of it you have this whole new person to keep alive for quite some time, and they are basically the worst room-mate ever but you can’t legally kick them out. Tough. Let’s prevent pregnancy.

Ok, so we’re turning depression off cos it’s sad and preventing pregnancy (at least until we don’t wanna prevent it anymore) cos it’s intense. You’d think preventing pregnancy might even help turn depression off, since not being able to do the whole baby thing perfectly seems like it could be quite stressful, and no one can do it perfectly. (Plus the not knowing if you’re pregnant can also be quite stressful.) Stress gone, mental health better! Right?

Wrong. Or at least, that’s not what you see in the wonderful world of birth control…

The Paradox of Birth Control and Depression

Birth control should be good for women’s mental health because it relieves stress by reliably preventing pregnancy. Yet studies link birth control (in the form of hormonal contraceptive pills) to depression in some women. These studies are observational and that annoys me. Now here are three useless paragraphs on why I find that so, so very annoying.

Experiment Better, Dammit: An Annoyed Interlude

There is no readily apparent reason why we don’t have better data on this and lots of other things that people experiment with by themselves all the time. It’s just because no one has yet bothered to code, fund, and organize a platform to allow people to set up and run their own experimental studies or participate in other people’s. Then we could turn lots of individual experiments into much more scientifically powerful experimental data. All this good experimenting is going to waste! Stop that. Experiment in a structure with other people, with basic infrastructure for things like open data in place from the start. Please?

Probably the results couldn’t be published in many peer-reviewed journals or presented at conferences. But independent researchers work outside of those constraints all the time. If you want to measure a genocide in a war zone through snowball sampling, or some other risky project no IRB would approve, then your best bet is probably to go do it and then take the results public. We live in a world where, for better and for much, much, worse, people can put whatever they want on the Internet (limited time offer, some restrictions may apply). And you know what? Making citizen-scientists the experimental practitioners and putting the data out there automatically might prevent a lot of fraud (or just bad science) that results from perverse incentives in academia and publishing (not that industry is any better). Most published research findings are false, but a truly open science platform could help change that.

It’s not quite so simple as “the truth will out” (cf fake news). But we could and should have a big open platform where people can just do good science together including experiments on lifestyle, diet, birth control, and these sorts of things. Otherwise we end up with only observational data on these really important issues for everything, and that’s dumb. But the platform solving this problem doesn’t exist and I can’t code it. That’s why we’re faced with this ongoing depression-birth control mystery among others…

The Antibaby Pill Blues

In Germany, they call “the pill,” the anti-baby pill. I love this because it is so German. It says what it means that Americans (indeed most Anglophones) would never come out and say. Are you anti-baby? Fine. Take this pill. It’s an antibaby pill. You know what it does. Done.

In Scandinavia, they do data. The state tends to collect a lot on citizens from birth to death. So their medical databases are awesome. Thus, when you see this Danish observational study linking antibaby pills (or rather, hormonal contraception) and depression, you know these people are serious and this is good data. Not experimental data (twitch, twitch). But good data. And this is basically the finding you see in a lot of studies, but this one is methodologically the strongest of the lot afaik.

But wait, the plot thickens. Not every study on birth control and depression reaches the same conclusions. For instance, an American study found no association between taking the antibaby pill and depression among adolescents. But this study relied on self-reports, unlike the Danish study which used data from registries. So respondents could have lied or, with deference to Harper Lee, been mistaken in their minds. That would be especially true if the effect size at issue were small, and so a small measurement error could make it disappear.

The effect size at issue is small. Some estimates put the rate of depression caused by the antibaby pill at 1%. It also might be relatively difficult to measure this small effect size in a smaller sample. And indeed, the sample size in the American study is under 5,000, versus over a million in the Danish study.

Ok, so there are discrepant findings from observational studies. But overall it seems like the risk of hormonal birth control causing depression is small but real. So in terms of statistical significance, it’s not surprising that smaller studies on subgroups are missing the effect; that’s probably why you see some discrepant findings. But practically, that 1% still matters. Hormonal birth control is really commonly used, and 1% of a million is 10,000. Those 10,000 women’s mental health matters. It matters that a common medication/birth control practice could be contributing in a non-negligible way to one of the world’s biggest public health problems. And this is also just really bad news for women in general, if basically their best birth control option (for a lot of people for a lot of reasons) carries a risk of screwing up their brains, quality of life, and bodies (to the extent that depression is really a total-organism problem featuring chronic low-grade inflammation).

But wait, there is a conspicuous problem here.

It’s the Hormones, Stupid

Depression is a mental health problem that sometimes creates or contributes to mental health crises that sometimes result in psychiatric in-patient admissions. That is a proxy measure of people who are not just depressed but in freefall (and not willing/able to talk their way out of it, or too socially isolated to be plugged into help, or whatever). And there is a big fat under-discussed gender effect on that subgroup of bad outcomes within bad outcomes.

In Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day, she mentions that the majority of female in-patient psych admissions happen during the week prior to menstruation. (And this is the first time I’ve seen this discussed in public, illustrating how her work is so taboo-shattering and important.) Hormones can really, really fuck you up.

This is not only a female problem. We know that boys and men tend to be more violent and experience more violence from other men as well (in the form of things like assault and homicide; clearly the gender numbers change with things like domestic violence and sexual assault). We know that testosterone is a contributing causal factor in these patterns of violence. It also seems to contribute to the much higher successful male suicide rate. I am too lazy to link to all these findings, but by all means look them up yourself using the Force, Luke.

So hormones cause big problems for all of humanity, but… That’s not cool to say. Seriously. Talking about how hormones (especially sex hormones) influence behavior and mental health is still, somehow, largely taboo.

The weirdly obvious problem in the studies I’ve seen so far linking hormonal birth control to depression is that they ignore this cyclical nature of women’s mental health. Studies on birth control and depression need to assess whether women are seeking treatment for depression more outpatient (which makes it look like they have 1% higher depression risk or so on the anti-baby pill)… Rather than having in-patient admissions. Or if there is some other story with respect to the intensity of the problem (in-patient admission or not) versus the persistence. There are a few possible stories.

Cry Me a Quiverful

To be more precise, there are three categories of possible stories here.

  1. Women on hormonal contraception are more depressed than women who are not.
  2. Women on hormonal contraception are not more depressed than women who are not.
  3. Women on hormonal contraception are depressed in a different pattern than women who are not. That pattern may or may not reflect a qualitative difference in depression type or presentation which would make it hard to characterize in a binary way (i.e., antibaby women are or are not more depressed than other women).

If the first is true (antibaby pill depresses a small % of women who take it), we don’t only want to confirm it. We want to know why that is. Here are a few hypotheses.

A. The scientific literature is suggestive that maybe there are differences across the menstrual cycle in how stable, smart, and creative women are. (More on this later and thank you, Frau Doktor Obvious.) So naturally there is probably fluctuation in functioning across various important arenas that keys into fluctuation in hormones. Perhaps hormonal antibaby measures help to level out higher cognitive-emotional highs and lower lows. So women on birth control who are depressed experience a more even (and thus possibly more persistent, depressed) state than their non-hormonally medicated counterparts who would sometimes feel great but at other times feel bad enough that they get admitted to the psych ward. (That would be measurable if you asked women how they were doing while tracking their cycles, which existing fertility tracking apps are capable of doing… except usually women on the pill don’t use those apps, and anyway it’d be better to get experimental than observational data if possible.) Let’s call this the boom and bust hypothesis.

B. Could also be that some women are sensitive to the synthetic hormones used in hormonal birth control in a neuropsych context. They could have a kind of inflammatory, autoimmune, or allergy-related reaction. We know depression is characterized by chronic low-level inflammation, and not much more about that facet of it. But that could be a hint of a mechanism linking birth control and depression. Call this the inflammation hypothesis.

C. Could also be that mimicking pregnancy (which hormonal birth control does in a way) without actual pregnancy makes women sad cos their bodies / brains know they’re not really pregnant. I don’t know how this would work, it’s just an idea. Organisms are not stupid and this hypothesis could also include super-simple mechanisms like the obvious psychological one—some women really want kids but take birth control anyway, and that’s depressing. Call this the missing pregnancy hypothesis.

D. Come to think of it, could be that delaying/preventing pregnancy overall changes the modal state of fertile adult women from pregnant/lactating (majority of the time) and fertile (minority of the time due to pregnancy/lactation), to non-pregnant and non-fertile. That changes a lot of things, not just the stuff the birth control itself directly rejiggers. For instance, it changes lifetime exposure to estrogen, and it looks like that affects Alzheimer’s risk. (Pregnancy appears to be protective against Alzheimer’s— so this story might also jibe with the inflammation hypothesis. Since inflammation is implicated in depression and Alzheimer’s alike, although we don’t begin to know the causal arrows in either case.)

So… How many women’s doctors have told them that the pill increases some cancer risks as well as depression? How many women’s doctors know that decreasing lifetime fertility can adversely impact Alzheimer’s risk? With rare exceptions, these things are just not discussed in general care settings. We have been engaging in a big medical-social experiment without fully informed consent. This is outrageous. Except this happens all the time and it’s called modern medicine.

Most people would probably still make the trade-off between their best birth control method today, and fewer kids in 1, 5, and 10 years. But that’s not a trade-off we’ve explicitly made. The lifetime medical implications for women of having effective birth control may be non-negligible even as the lifetime professional and personal implications for women and society of women having effective birth control are so staggering that we don’t need to do the math to know the score. It’s not fair but it’s true, and no one talks about it. The impact of that silence is that we don’t get more needed research on what in the world is going on here.

Anyway, let’s say previous female generations’ greater cumulative lifetime pregnancy exposure was protective against depression, or inflammatory processes that correlate with and might both cause and be caused by it, or something else that matters here. Call this the my once-starving Romanian great-grandmother was perfectly healthy after having seven kids without ever being offered a condom, but I’m allergic to everything despite having great medical care, hypothesis. Wait, that’s too long. Ok, the cumulative pregnancy exposure hypothesis.

That’s plenty of hypotheses. But those only deal with the depression effect if it’s real. What if it’s not?

What if women on the pill are just more plugged into medical care, and so it looks like they’re more depressed cos they get more depression diagnoses and treatment cos they’re getting more medical care? The healthcare access hypothesis.

What if women on the pill just think they’re more depressed for some reason even though they’re not? Could be a nocebo effect, and this is not without precedent in this context. Lots of women believe that hormonal birth control causes weight gain, when really the passage of time correlates with weight gain (we think). They are just looking for a reason for the weight gain, or a visible effect of the birth control, or both. Could also be women on the pill think they’re more depressed but are actually not, because they’re just thinking about themselves and their mental states more because of some sort of self-selection that underpins the decision to take antibaby measures. Or they just expect bad effects, so they see them (expectancy effects). So this is the something is wrong with me hypothesis… or, perhaps snappier but less politically correct, the hysterical women hypothesis.

I dislike this hypothesis precisely because it keys into stereotypes about hysterical women making up problems. But… There is some support for it in the literature. But that support contradicts other findings in the literature. Hormone levels do so affect cognitive and emotional functioning according to lots of research. (It’s also obviously true.) So it’s really weird to come across papers denying that.

What’s up with this apparent scientific support for the idea that hormonal birth control’s apparent deleterious psychological effects on some women are psychogenic or psychosomatic? And if this question was settled back in 2004 at the latest, then why does research to the contrary persist? The review article in the penultimate link says:

Seven small randomized-controlled trials were found in a review of the literature which studied this hypothesis [i.e., emotional side-effects of hormonal contraceptives come from pharmacologic versus psychological mechanisms] in a direct way. They do not support the origination of these side effects being from the pharmacological properties of hormones. No association was found between hormone levels and emotional functioning in females.

Stephen A. Robinson, Matt Dowell, Dominic Pedulla, and Larry McCauley, “Do the emotional side-effects of hormonal contraceptives come from pharmacologic or psychological mechanisms?” *Medical Hypotheses*, Vol. 63, No. 2, 2004, p. 268-273

Wait… What? What exactly were those studies saying that hormone levels don’t affect women’s emotional functioning? Who funded them? How many subjects did they have? Is there any clue about why their findings apparently contradict a lot of other research out there, while supporting the hysterical women hypothesis that psychological effects of hormonal birth control are all in women’s heads?

Luckily, these questions are easy to answer because when you go from the marvelous free database that is PubMed to the publisher’s website for this article, the relevant PDF is available for purchase from ScienceDirect for $35.95. Because academic publishers are evil and Aaron Swartz is dead. It’s almost like one set of institutions (academic publishing) colludes with another (academia) to hold a grip on information the public has mostly already paid for (with tax money to science and education), because profit is all they care about.

Hey, I know. Maybe women on the antibaby pill are more depressed than women not on it because they spend less time worrying about getting knocked up or finding non-toxic fingerpaints, and more time thinking about the state of the world.

Moving on, what if the depression effect is real but not? What if antibaby women’s depression is just occurring in a different pattern than that of women who aren’t on hormonal birth control? This possibility is almost the same as the very first, the boom and bust hypothesis. It’s just a little more generally formulated, and it recognizes that the hypothesis doesn’t necessarily belong in the “this link is real” hypothesis category. That categorization assumes too much. But for simplification purposes let’s just going to collapse this last possibility into the first and move onto theoretical moorings and empirical possibilities for testing these hypotheses.

Theoretical Support

One could think of additional theoretical support for each of these hypotheses. But that would take way too long for a random blog post. Instead I brainstormed ways to test each hypothesis instead because that’s fun.

It’s also arguably logical here because any information we glean about possible causal mechanisms supporting one theory over another from experiments testing each theory is bonus; any new information about this mystery is valuable. It is so crazy that we have been running this huge social experiment of hormonal birth control for roughly half a century… And don’t have some of these really basic questions answered about how it affects mental health.

Experimental Fantasies

Recap: In the world in which the depression-birth control link is small but real, we need to consider the boom and bust, inflammation, missing pregnancy, and cumulative pregnancy exposure hypotheses. In the world in which it’s not, we need to consider the healthcare and hysterical women hypotheses. There is an in-between world in which the link is qualitative, the real story is about different patterns or manifestations of depression rather than quantitative changes in depression incidence itself. But we are ignoring that world because it kind-of fits into the first world alright for now, under boom and bust.

These are my favorite study ideas for moving this puzzle forward in as compact and comprehensive a fashion as possible. They run from observational to experimental and easier to harder, and ideally one would do it all. But in reality, probably no one will do any of these things.

First, one would want to test inflammation by comparing serum levels of standard inflammation markers like ESR and CRP in hormonal birth control and non-hormonal birth control groups containing depressed and non-depressed women. Ideally this would be experimental data, but in practice you’re getting observational data and it already exists. Someone just needs to look at the Danish registries’ data again, or another Scandinavian state work of data art. It would be really interesting to include in the study some autoimmune response markers if possible, even just the most general ANA. Since inflammatory, allergic, and autoimmune responses share correlates, might exist on a spectrum in some ways, and are all seemingly increasing in modern life, particularly in the realm of autoimmune diseases for women.

(It might also be interesting to see if there are “time capsule” samples one could cross-reference to check changes in these markers over time—like was done to show rising incidence of celiac, to test for changing base rates of inflammatory markers. But that’s less likely to be possible in women’s health research specifically, since women weren’t well-represented in the armed forces 50 years ago—the celiac samples came from the Air Force… And female subjects who can at all possibly get pregnant are still not all that well-represented in medical research studies today. Women’s bodies are considered riskier and so research on women’s health suffers… At least until more women are in charge of it in a way that lets them freely choose to experiment on themselves.)

Another cool thing one could do with good, big observational data like this is look at cumulative pregnancy exposure and related outcomes broadly conceived, like depression diagnosis, suicide (an extreme proxy measure of depression, one might say) and some pre-determined hunk of problems associated with inflammation (qua depression correlate). This would go some way towards testing the inflammation and cumulative pregnancy exposure hypotheses.

The remaining hypotheses seem like they would be best tested through experiments. To see what’s in the realm of possible there, I looked back at this great study on mifepristone (aka the abortion pill). Researchers studied the effects of low-dose mifepristone on the endometrium of 90 women for six months. They found mostly suppressed ovulation and menstruation. No menstruation is a huge health benefit for most women.

They also found no pregnancies. That is a high efficacy rate for birth control, although of course more research would help better assess how effective and under what conditions compared to which alternatives this method really is.

And they found “Because follicular development is maintained, the endometrium is exposed to estrogen for prolonged periods unopposed by progesterone.” I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds like it involves overall less tinkering with natural hormonal balance than any hormonal birth control. That could be good, could be bad, we don’t know yet (afaik).

But we do know a few useful things from this awesome study that has probably not gotten enough play just because people are afraid to try new things and mifepristone/misopristol are associated with (gasp!) abortion. First, there is already a viable alternative to hormonal contraception that appears to be equally effective, non-invasive, temporary, and safe. It’s just not in wide use at all, and it’s not clear why.

Second, six months apparently qualifies as long-term on PubMed (… but not on OkCupid).

And third, it’s now ok to call amenorrhea (the medical condition of not getting your period) a health benefit. This seems like some form of progress. It’s often said that their creators put a dummy week in earlier hormonal birth control pills in order to reassure women they weren’t pregnant by giving them withdrawal bleeding. But now we have easy access to early pregnancy tests, we know regular periods are not necessary for women’s health, and it’s become ok to say in a scientific journal that not getting regular periods would be great, would be a health benefit, without hedging about the valence of this. So that seems cool. Medicine tricks women less, women’s quality of life improves, and one more gender taboo shatters.

Why not build on this mifepristone research by pitting low-dose mifepristone against low-dose progesterone-only hormonal birth control (the best tolerated and least risky for most subgroups of current antibaby pill formulations) in a randomized controlled double-blind trial to see how depression incidence compares across groups? That’s not a meaningless rhetorical question. It’s actually a really important one. Because holy shit, mifepristone has also shown promise in rapidly reversing psychotic depression.

This finding might make sense as an inverse corollary to the antibaby-depression relationship, since most hormonal contraception uses (at least) progesterone, while mifepristone’s mechanisms include progesterone receptor antagonism. So progesterone and mifepristone are sort-of opposites in one of the ways they work on hormones. So it makes sense that if progesterone causes depression in 1% of women, then a chemical that screws with progesterone receptors could similarly decrease depression in some small percentage of women.

The prevalence of depression with psychotic features is also in the neighborhood of 1%. That fits. So we really want to see low-dose mifepristone and low-dose progesterone pitted in an RCT to see if depression, and especially psychotic depression, decrease in the former at about the same rate that they increase in the latter. Because that would potentially solve the puzzle in a mechanistic sense while also solving it in a practical sense. Or at least, it would strongly suggest that women who do poorly on progesterone should try mifepristone instead—and that instead of making their lives worse (more depression) while making them better (antibaby), it might make their lives better (less depression) while making them better (antibaby). Isn’t that what medicine is supposed to do?

I hope I’m wrong about the politics of all this, and this experiment has already been done or is in progress / planning. But I’m afraid we’re not getting this mifepristone v. progesterone RCT. Probably it hasn’t happened yet because people are afraid of new things and “the abortion pill” is controversial. That is stupid and wrong.

You might say well, the design is perfectly feasible, the idea is promising, and so this will probably be executed somewhere abortion is less controversial in the next 10-20 years. But then you would not be looking then at mifepristone’s history of being pulled from the German market for not being profitable. For all the wrong reasons, there is not good current access to and further research on “the abortion pill,” which probably should be better known as “the birth control pill that doesn’t occasionally give you depression or cancer.”

Here is a less feasible mifepristone RCT design: Treatment group gets standard hormonal contraceptive, control group gets no active birth control but takes a dummy pill instead. Plus everyone gets a nice dose of mifepristone/misopristol to induce abortion every month in the event of pregnancy. This would test the missing pregnancy hypothesis that it’s fooling the body/brain/organism into thinking it’s pregnant when it’s not that makes some women depressed on the antibaby pill. Because they would actually be probably pregnant, but aborting every month (or every three months on average), instead of discovering it.

On one hand, if you see no increase in depression in the pregnant and aborted group, but you do see increased depression in the hormonal birth control group, then it looks like support for this hypothesis. On the other hand, this is a terrible idea. Are blindly, temporarily pregnant women really the right control group here? There’s not a better option. But it also seems obvious that the hormonal changes of early pregnancy will be more depressing than the hormonal changes of being on hormonal birth control. So you can’t really test the missing pregnancy hypothesis with this design. Maybe you can’t test it adequately with any design. You also can’t test the cumulative pregnancy exposure theory adequately with this design, cos month 1 of pregnancy repeated represents a different cumulative hormonal exposure than months 1-x repeated. (There might also be a few minor ethical issues in a study that intends to let some women get pregnant and then quietly give them abortions without informing them at any step per se, nbd.) 

A more feasible (but still not terribly feasible) RCT design: women are randomized to be on and off hormonal birth control, with the control group blinded with dummy pills. They do daily (or maybe 3x/weekly is enough) real-time cognitive and emotional check-ins regarding mood and body temperature to test the boom and bust theory. Everyone uses a back-up, non-invasive birth control method like condoms. This seems totally possible with current tech, in terms of having a smart-phone app asking women questions regularly and getting them to answer in real-time, more or less.

This study is still not terribly feasible for two reasons. First, because no one is going to be on birth control and use condoms at the same time, right? Maybe someone would do it for science; but then again, maybe they shouldn’t. The hassle is just so much larger and the potential pay-off so much smaller than in the mifepristone v. progesterone RCT. But… If people would do it, then maybe we would learn whether hormonal birth control really causes depression or just levels out normal mood fluctuations over the cycle. Second, the real reason this study hasn’t happened and is unlikely to happen anytime soon is that no pharmaceutical company seems likely to profit from its results either way. Unless I’m missing something and it’s all been done?

One could similarly envision a study doing real-time cognition/mood checks on women using hormonal birth control and women with no birth control access. That would test the medical care access hypothesis. But it would also be hugely unethical because honestly, if you’re talking to women without birth control access, it should be to help them have better healthcare and not to study how that lack of access affects their mental health.

So what about a volunteer study running “long-term” (six months) that just asks women to let themselves be randomized to different established birth control methods? Hormonal (treatment) or other (control). If you really wanted to standardize it, you could specify low-dose progesterone and copper IUD since those are probably the least risky and most effective options in the best-established hormonal and non-hormonal groupings of options. And of course match the groups on relevant measures like prior depression. On one hand, surely this has been done. On the other hand, there is such a crazy amount of basic research that has not been done in a sound way when it comes to women’s health.

In part this is for nefarious reasons having to do with profit and sexism. But why turn to those explanations when there are also completely innocuous ones staring us in the face? Other people and institutions have been afraid to experiment on pregnant women or women who could become pregnant, for fear of doing harm. That is a good and appropriate fear. As an unintended consequence, however, this pattern harms women when we wind up with less informed choice on important medical/lifestyle issues.

But women are (in some countries and contexts) allowed to experiment on themselves. It’s possible to access both low-dose mifepristone and low-dose progesterone in a lot of places. And it’s possible to participate in a study with other people who can access them, too. So the best study I can think of to address the birth control-depression paradox is unlikely to be run in the usual way anytime soon, but maybe it can happen anyway…

I didn’t mean to come back to this, but now it makes the most sense as a closing. I really hope some badass, somewhere, someday will code an open science platform that helps more people design and participate in more research. (Or does this already exist?) It would be like Reddit for methodologists, or an interactive XKCD for nerds. (Oh wait, that’s XKCD.) There are just too many unanswered questions, and too many smart people out there willing to help answer them… with a little (structured) help from their friends.

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Reversible World and Other Paintings

It’s spring, and I’m so happy for the light… Moving again in my studio… Making like a happy animal with the season.

Gouache and ink on paper.

One of my first book-rewards (beginning the obligatory post-publication binge) was Derek Walcott’s Omeros. Still rereading favorite passages…

  1. Reversible World

“I re-entered my reversible world. Its opposite
lay in the autumnal lake whose trees kept still
perfectly, but where my disembodied trunk split

along the same line of reflection that halved Achille,
since men’s shadows are not pieces moved by a frown,
by the same hand that opens the willow’s fan to the light,

indifferent to who lifts us up once we are put down,
fixed in hierarchical postures, pawn, bishop, knight,
nor are we simply chameleons, self-dyeing our skins

to each background.”

—DW O, Chapter XLI, II

Same painting, more layers and materials—pastels, acrylics.

2. Days When

“There are days when, however simple the future, we do not go
towards it but leave part of life in a lobby whose elevators
divide and enclose us, brightening digits that show

exactly where we headed, while a young Polish waitress
is emptying an ashtray, and we are drawn to a window
whose strings, if we pull them, widen an emptiness.

Acrylics on paper.

“We yank the iron-grey drapes, and the screeching pulleys
reveal in the silence not fall in Toronto
but a city whose language was seized by its police,

that other servitude Nina Something was born into,
where under gun-barrel chimneys the smoke holds its voice
till it rises with hers. Zagajewski. Herbert. Milosz.”

—DW O, Chapter XLII, I

Oils on 50 x 50 stretched canvas.

3. Rain Lost Its Reason

“He had never seen such strange weather; the surprise
of a tempestuous January that churned
the foreshore brown with remarkable, bursting seas

convinced him that ‘somewhere people interfering
with the course of nature’; the feathery mare’s tails
were more threateningly frequent, and its sunsets

the roaring ovens of the hurricane season,
while the frigates hung closer inland and the nets
starved on their bamboo poles. The rain lost its reason…”

Acrylics on paper.

“… and behaved with no sense at all. What had angered
the rain and made the sea foam? Seven Seas would talk
bewilderingly that man was an endangered

species now, a spectre, just like the Aruac
or the egret, or parrots screaming in terror
when men approached, and that once men were satisfied

with destroying men they would move on to Nature.”

—DW O, Chapter LX, I

Acrylics on paper.

Omeros, published in 1990, was obviously speaking to climate change in this passage. The rest of the chapter speaks to the biodiversity crisis and overfishing. It is disconcerting to remember not just that scientists have been warning us about all this for a long time. But that artists were making beauty of the warnings. So that did not work and we cannot really address reality by making art celebrating beautiful nature, warning of its destruction, or both… But then what do artists do? (Ok, tautology: Artists make art. But we still have to think what engagement looks like in this context.)

Acrylics on 40 x 50 stretched canvas.

4. That Other Sight

“O Sun, the one eye of heaven, O Force, O Light,
my heart kneels to you, my shadow has never changed
since the salt-fresh mornings of encircling delight

across whose cities the wings of the frigate ranged
freer than any republic, gliding with ancient
ease! I praise you not for my eyes. That other sight.”

—DW O, Chapter LIX, II

Oils on 40 x 50 stretched canvas.

Idea-seeds take the time they take (and maybe they, too, need the spring light to poke through). I read Walcott in October and just painted one thing I sort-of like (this last one, of all the above) from/with/to/for those favorite passages.

Similarly, I’ve been thinking about Chagall’s “Atelier de Nuit“—made when he was 93!—since visiting Cologne last winter attempting to pitch galleries… And managing only to review Rosenquist et al and pick up some free art books instead (thanks, Galerie Boiserée).

Then in October, after a conversation with a friend who wants to “change the system from within,” I had an idea… and sketched a chicken eating a worm flying out of Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged house’s chimney while a Chagall-inspired nocturnal woman-spirit flying out of the house’s top level watches. I couldn’t have painted it a day sooner, although the sketch has been lying around all this time. The spring light is so good…

Oils on big canvas in crappy light.

Except for its terrible habit of fading at the end of the day.

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Cold Days, Hot Foods: Eight Winter Recipes (for One Last Day of Winter)

“Yes, we can!”—sometimes be bothered to eat a few more salads when the future of humanity is at stake. But should we?

The world needs your salads,” said fair Hanka during the awful summer heat, and the recent EAT Lancet report on healthy nutrition within planetary limits proved her right. So here again are a few of my favorite gluten-free, dairy-free recipes this season.

Almost-pudding breakfast cocoa

If you stop doing normal things, like the young climate activists who have stopped going to school on Fridays , perhaps the world stops spinning (at speed) towards its hypernormalised disasters. Even going to school to prepare for a future marred by climate change. Even staying up late before drinking coffee first thing in the morning. You cannot overthrow the government in the age of mass surveillance, but you can change your daily life. Thus the current wave of climate diets promoting mainly less or no animal product consumption (low-Moo and no-Moo, if you will)—under the auspices of advancing individual and planetary health.

Go to bed early before rising in the pre-dawn darkness to play the piano and make cocoa. In a roughly bathtub-sized mug (holding about 1 3/4 cups), mix a stirring spoon and a half of honey with five spoonfuls of unsweetened cocoa and a dash of cinnamon. Heat a shy, small cup of unsweetened almond milk plus a splash of rice milk (to sweeten) for about a minute and forty seconds in the microwave. Then dissolve honey-cocoa paste in warm (not hot) milk. The idea is to make it warm enough for comfort, but cool enough to not destroy the honey’s enzymatic magic. (Acacia, manuka, chestnut, and other honeys have anti-microbial and cytotoxic activities.)

In the now-empty smaller cup, heat half the creamy top of a can of coconut milk for about a minute. Add to cocoa bath. Stir smooth.

Enjoy warm and feel empowered to assist in making the world a better place. Although, like many vegetarian recipes, making this for breakfast regularly might increase your consumptive production of nefarious waste materials including plastic, because it’s hard to buy non-dairy milk in paper or glass containers. (So you’ll just have to eventually experiment with making your own, which turns out to also cut climate costs by holding out water and thus involving lighter shipping.) A regular cocoa habit also might increase your contribution to deforestation—which in turn contributes to climate change. So if a good measure of your daily caloric intake comes from cocoa, then you’re probably among those with flexitarian, vegetarian, and vegan diets who manage to have worse environmental impacts than some omnivores. (On the other hand, if much of your daily caloric intake comes from cocoa, maybe you need it for medical reasons.)

So climate diets show both ying and yang of simple, everyday disruptions as political actions. Yes, we can change the world: You can taste it. And as Paul O’Neill’s work has shown, sometimes successfully disrupting one small set of habits can actually lead to much larger-scale transformations. Once we see for ourselves the evidence that we ourselves can really affect change—well, we can change.

At the same time, trying to eat vegan often shows people how hard it is make dietary choices that are good for our bodies and the planet. Not everyone adjusts (digestively speaking) to diets reliant for protein and other nutrients on seeds, nuts, and beans. Not everyone has the time or inclination to puzzle out how to keep buying local over factor-farmed (which reduces climate impact as well as having other merits), when the obvious meat replacements like tofu tend to come wrapped in plastic from much farther away than the local commune. Actually looking at the environmental life cycle of the goods and services we consume and how they affect our health—and questioning why our consumer choices seem to exist in a defection-rich, information-poor decision environment oddly divorced from politics—is much harder than embracing simplistic, individualistic decision rules. The marketplace of grub, much like the marketplace of ideas, is neither transparent nor ideology-free.

And satisficing simply does not work here. Just eating less animal products is not good enough because you must also avoid single-use plastics. Just eating local is not good enough because you also need to worry about the impacts of what you consume on the soil, the surrounding ecosystem, and the atmosphere. There is a whole Calder-esque mobile of concerns to evaluate in a constant learning process. As a stationary resolution with simple decision rules, one might be forgiven for writing off the whole enterprise. Climate diets are a good and noble idea in theory, but they can easily fail in nutritional, planetary, and political practice where the reality of making (and digesting) dinner begins.

And yet: It is corporate interests that set them up to fail. Human (and other animal) health and planetary interests demand that we fail again, fail better in the learning process of being good stewards of ourselves, one another, and our home planet. For this to be fun, we have to see it as a process, like having better infosec, or adulting.

William Blake once wrote: “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” We must create a system of assessing and limiting (including by causing corporations to limit) lifecycle environmental costs. One that does not, like calls to binary and increasingly tribalistic decision rules, reduce the complexity of this task beyond its utility. The movement to address global environmental crisis with consumer diet and lifestyle choices distracts from the larger structural issues in play. Keep the empowerment and toss the myopia like a bit of skin that has formed on top of an otherwise perfect cup of cocoa.

Ingredients

5 spoonfuls unsweetened cocoa
1.5 spoonfuls honey
dash cinnamon
shy cup unsweetened almond milk
splash rice milk
1/2 the cream plus a little liquid from a can of coconut milk (i.e., one can’s worth of coconut cream yields two cups of cocoa plus some leftover milk, useful in things like vegan café au lait and amaranth-coconut porridge)

Amaranth-coconut porridge (aka cream of wheat for weaklings)

Amaranth is a tasty grain that won’t kill you if you’re medically allergic to gluten. Coconut is a tasty milk that won’t kill you if you’re medically allergic to milk. Put them together, and you get cream of wheat that won’t kill you if you’re allergic to cream and wheat, in which case you’re a weakling who will probably be among the first to die in the coming end times we’re not to call that because apocalypse is somehow the domain of right-wing nutjobs even as climate scientists, biologists, and other witnesses of the current harbingers of global ecosystem collapse are screaming. Comfort foods are important.

Combine 1 cup amaranth with 2 1/2 cups coconut milk in a medium-sized pot with a lid. If you’re using a normal can of coconut milk, skim and save the cream off the top make creamy, almost-pudding breakfast cocoa, mashed potatoes, or veggie mash later.

You could use a commercial non-dairy milk (“mylk”) preparation instead, but… These will tend to be sold in plastic-containing containers as opposed to cans (avoid plastic). They will tend to be less rich than coconut due to lower fat content. Relatedly, they’re also typically more processed, and higher in added sugar in one form or another—all factors that can lead foods to contribute to overweight/obesity since they correlate with less food value and less satiety alike. So unless you have real food allergy / intolerance issues, real milk in moderation is probably better for you than mylk, and less-processed non-dairy alternatives are similarly probably better for you than more-processed ones.

In this and other contexts, veganism is more complicated as a personal and planetary health strategy than it might seem at first glance. Given baseline food security, it would probably be better for both individuals and the planet for people to simply fast more / eat less, than to embrace a particular diet such as veganism that seems quite vulnerable to corporate cooptation and that, done wrong, can easily harm people and the climate alike. There’s a broad array of suggestive evidence for the individual health benefits of fasting and calorie restriction, to say nothing of the power of hunger strikes, boycotts, and other forms of directed non-consumption to help people affect political change—most famously in the cases of Gandhi and Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

So the satisficer’s climate diet looks more like fasting or calorie restriction than veganism, and the radical’s climate diet looks more like organizing collective boycotts of the worst environment offenders at whatever level works best politically than individual non-consumption. You could argue this boycott of the worst is sort-of already what climate diets do, since livestock make huge amounts of greenhouse gasses. But, because it is hard to calculate full environmental life-cycle costs of meat and dairy alternatives, eating less period makes more sense than eating different things. Harnessing that to a non-violent resistance strategy such as the hunger strike would maximize the strategy’s efficacy by framing it in explicitly collective, political—as opposed to individual, personal terms.

But that then requires slightly more organization and communication than simply making breakfast. Bring amaranth-coconut mixture to a boil on high heat. Add a dash of cinnamon and salt. Cover, turn down to medium-low heat, and simmer until grain absorbs liquid and the consistency is softer, like cream of wheat (about 20 minutes). Remove from heat and let sit to thicken and cool (10 mins).

As with any bowl of grains, there are many ways to dress this up. Some people like cream of wheat and its allergen-free subsidiaries (“cr34m %f wh34t?”) with a bit of butter and sugar—by which is meant here deforesting palm oil-free, non-dairy butter that you have magically procured without consuming plastics, and a lower glycemic-index sweetener like maple syrup or coconut sugar. Another alternative is breaking up pecans and walnuts with diced dried fruit (figs, apricots, cherries) and cocoa nibs on top. Hot berry compote or fresh berries can be used in place of dried fruit, too.

To make hot berry compote, throw your favorite berries in a pot. Frozen berries are a good year-round staple, as (especially in winter) fresh ones can come from too far away to be environmentally responsible. Shipping contributes to ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions. So at least until environmental impact information is listed on foods for consumers to evaluate and compare, just like nutrition facts labeling, one will be forever juggling and imperfectly weighing guesses of emissions contributions including greenhouse gas production (cattle burp—a lot), greenhouse gas use in transit (shipping from afar versus buying local adds up), and other factors.

Frozen produce can often be had from closer to home even out of season. It’s also (usually) cheaper than fresh, and is supposedly among the highest-nutrient you can buy (since produce that’s fresh-frozen can maintain more nutritional value than produce that’s been transported long distances without refrigeration).

Boil fruit on high heat briefly, until it bubbles. Then turn down the heat and stir frequently until the mixture becomes thick and smooth (10-15 minutes). Pour compote over porridge and enjoy.

Serves two, or keeps a day on the counter / four days in the fridge. Vegan fare tends to be easy like that—less temperature-sensitive and prone to spoiling. So at least weaklings like me will know how to cook breakfast without refrigeration when collapse comes. Does anyone know how to make a fire?

Ingredients

1 cup amaranth
2 1/2 cups coconut milk (buy a few cans and save the cream off the top for later)
water
dash cinnamon, salt

(optional)
vegan butter, maple syrup, crumbled nuts, dried / frozen / fresh fruit, cocoa nibs

Quinoa is the new PB&J

[Note: It has been brought to my attention that PB&J is an American delicacy with which few Europeans are familiar. It stands for “peanut butter and jelly,” a popular sandwich type in which processed “peanut butter” composed mostly of trans fat, salt, and sugar is wiped down one side of a slice of “bread” (so-called although its substance is entirely different from that of bread in the rest of the world) while “jelly” or “jam,” a form of colored sugar sold in jars decorated with matching fruit pictures, is wiped down one side of another slice. Then the wet sides are stuck together and the creation is eaten for lunch—just like a regular sandwich made of actual food, but while corporations make more money.]

Rinse quinoa in a sieve. Then mix 1 part grain to 1.5 parts water (e.g., 1 cup quinoa to 1.5 cups water) in a medium-sized pot. Bring the mixture to a boil with a bit of salt. Turn down to medium-low heat, cover, and let simmer until the water is absorbed (20 minutes). Remove from heat.

Spoon a portion into a bowl. Top with your favorite nut butter (the less processed and fewer ingredients, the better). Add salt or white miso paste to taste.

Yes, white miso paste. Look: If you can’t have (glutenous) Vegemite, white miso paste plus margarine on toast is a close second. If you can’t have salted caramel chocolate (dairy), white miso paste plus molten dark chocolate on French toast is what you can have. And it is frickin’ delicious. Did you think this was all about saving the world? Fine. Only joy makes people kind and strong enough to save the world. White miso paste and dark chocolate are joyful. Ergo, white miso paste with melted chocolate is essential to saving the world.

Break up some of your favorite chocolate on top of the hot quinoa and nut butter mixture. Mixing unsweetened and 75% dark forms a nice, bittersweet complement to the sweetness of the hot berry compote (see previous recipe). Serve hot.

Leftover quinoa reheats well, keeps at least a week in a sealed container in the fridge, and is a nice addition to stews, casseroles, and salads—basically anything into which you might otherwise have thrown higher glycemic-index, glutenous pasta. Quinoa is cool like that. Adult lactose tolerance is normal only among some ethnic subgroups of whites, and gluten intolerance has various racial patterns as well (e.g., confirmed celiac disease is more common in Jews, and African-Americans are more likely to adopt gluten-free diets than their white counterparts even though doctors tend to be averse to calling that a known pattern of gluten sensitivity). But quinoa seems well-tolerated across populations in addition to being hardy and nutritious.

Thus quinoa seems increasingly important to the future of food security. If relatively market-dominant global grain crops suffer harvest failures due to climate change, quinoa will probably help feed the hungry world. Quinoa PB&J could really become “the new PB&J.” But with only Plumpy’Nut on top.

For now, forget Plumpy’Nut. Forget famines. Forget what you don’t or can’t have and focus on what you can. Melt more chocolate chunks on top, making a warm breakfast bowl that tastes like a combination of peanut-butter M&Ms and health-food store trail-mix. Filling, but not hopeful. Sweet, but somehow also unreal. Have another bowl while you still can.

Ingredients

quinoa
water
peanut butter
frozen berries for compote

(optional)
salt
white miso paste
part of a chocolate bar, chunked

Steckrüben stew

Steckrüben—Swedish turnip, rutabaga, pig feed, dinner. Dinner all winter long in Germany, 1916-1917, when bad weather killed grain and potato crops while wartime pressures including an Allied Blockade reduced trade and transportation, producing the Steckrübenwinter (aka the Kohlrübenwinter or Hungerwinter)—also known as the (slightly mistranslated) Turnip Winter or Hunger Winter. Hundreds of thousands starved. Those who subsisted did so on rutabagas and black-market grain mixed with straw and sawdust. Such a weak diet made for weaker people when the global flu pandemic hit in 1918, possibly helping the Allies “win” as relatively more food-insecure Germans fell ill and disproportionately died.

Although living memory of the Turnip Winter has faded, root veg remain staples of northern European winter cuisine. Today health foodies promote turnips and rutabagas as low-cal, low-carb alternatives to grains and potatoes for exactly the same reasons they contributed to mass deaths last century: they’re mostly water (and some vitamin C).

But as always with food, rutabagas are more than the sum of their nutritional parts: Steckrüben today speak of being warm inside when it’s cold out. A symbol of deprivation has become one of comfort. Especially when cooked and blended for stew.

Rinse, cut off the ends, and dice rutabagas into a roasting pan. Add the white and light green parts of a leek, some finely diced fresh rosemary, dried thyme, salt, pepper, oil, and other spices as desired. Roast on 200 C until a fork goes in easily (30 minutes).

Meanwhile, sauté peeled and minced garlic (4 cloves) and onion (1-2 medium-sized, any color), then carrot (2-3 carrots), then celery (2-3 stalks). Cook on medium heat, stirring until carmelization (browning) starts (15 minutes). Stir in a bit of beef bouillon and parsley. Set aside the mixture in an extra-large soup pot.

To that pot, add any leftovers that work well in stews (like mashed potatoes and chicken stock). Add the roasted rutabaga and leek, along with more parsley, bay leaves, other spices, and water up to about 3/4 of the pot’s depth, so it can boil without spilling. For spices, start with beef bouillon (or salt), pepper, paprika, cayenne, onion granules, garlic powder, thyme, oregano (this list so far comprising a standard cajun spice mix), cumin, curry, sage, and nutmeg. Go easy on the bouillon / salt—add a bit and taste to find what you like. Bring to a full boil, then reduce heat and let simmer until everything is soft (about 25 minutes).

Remove soup from heat and let cool a bit before blending in the blender until just smooth. Taste, adding more salt, pepper, and other spices as needed. The consistency should be thick enough to hold up a spoon—more like purée than soup.

Irony: A bland dish based on a vegetable Germans only began eating (instead of feeding it to pigs) due to wartime starvation has become a flavorful winter comfort food.

Decadence: Using this stew as a canvas for other flavors, like glazed pork chops, roasted veg, and greens, makes it even more flavorful and comforting.

More irony: One reason to preserve the memory of what to eat, how, during times of famine, is in case of future famine. Yet the inclination is to dress it up to suit the times. So the decadence helps transmit the specs of survival. Or so I like to think.

More decadence: For pork chop glaze, mix a few splashes of tamari (gluten-free soy sauce), about 1/4 fresh lemon or orange juice, a small spoonful of brown sugar, a clove of minced and smashed garlic, a tablespoon of finely diced onion, some heavy dashes of paprika, some smaller dashes of cayenne, a small dash of nutmeg, and a sprinkling of cumin, thyme, oregano, sage, pepper, and parsley on and over pork chops in a small pan. Bake on 180 C for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, repurpose the earlier root veg roasting pan to roast diced fennel, tomatoes, and bell pepper, tossed with oil and spices. Fennel and bell pepper don’t need much more than salt and pepper—though garlic powder, onion granules, and paprika don’t hurt. Fennel and carrots are also nice with a pinch of sweet spices like fennel seed and dill; bell pepper with savory like thyme and parsley. Tomatoes and eggplant are best with their classic Italian spice pairings—basil, oregano, thyme, parsley, garlic, onion, and maybe a pinch of rosemary and sage. Lining veg up in rows with their own spicing in one pan makes for nice blending and variety of flavors. Bake on 180 C for 45 minutes, 200 C for 30 minutes, or until a fork goes in easily.

If these veg don’t call to you or you can’t find them, use something else. The humble onion—peeled, halved, and doused with oil and curry powder—roasts up into an amazing sweet but savory, mellow but pungent treat. As do apples and pears with cinnamon sugar. Or celeriac with “Scarborough Fair”: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.

When the stew is fully ready to serve—blended and back in the pot, or even on the table—then wilt some dark leafy greens to serve on top. You can’t go wrong with good greens, hot oil, salt and pepper. Lots of paprika, little cayenne, and garlic powder go well with spinach (which wilts in about 5 minutes, including flipping halfway through). Confit garlic and chili flakes go well with kale (10 minutes). Leftover dark leek greens from the earlier set of roasted veg take a bit longer (20 minutes). All greens go well with the standard Southern flavoring of oil, salt, pepper, and pulled-off bits of leftover pork from the bones, especially with a bit of extra heat: chili flakes, cayenne pepper and paprika, sambal, or whatever is at hand…

After dinner, leftover porkchop bones can be thrown in the stew to flavor the rest of the pot, simmering on low heat for an hour or so before being placed outside to cool down for a few hours or overnight, so it doesn’t heat up the rest of the fridge contents. Yes, it’s true. If you eat meat at my house, it’s highly likely that I will (not even subtly) steal any gnawed bones off your plate to boil into soup later.

Restaurants do this, too; they just don’t tell you about it. Just as the ruling elite steal the gnawed bones of the former middle class’s remaining wealth to boil in the late capitalist soup of global collective action problems like the sixth mass extinction which has not yet hit the food chain long and hard enough that it has us living on rutabaga and straw. Meanwhile they get the public to believe (wrongly) that it has a choice in all this by controlling the media, universities, and all remotely governmental institutions through more or less rank corruption and authoritarianism made to look like consensual self-governance. If you don’t like it, of course, you can vote. Or eat less meat, stop flying, and take shorter showers.

But this choice set reflects a basic misunderstanding of power, making it seem as if the choices that you know you can make yourself are the only choices available. They are not. This is a facet ofmanufactured consent.

There is another way: Making large companies pay the costs of their own environmental degradation has to happen at the regulatory level to make the structural difference needed to actually cut greenhouse gas emissions. And individual self-blame for the ongoing harms of the corruption that keeps this from happening is disproportionate and self-destructive.

Discard boiled bones.

Ingredients

1-2 turnips
1-2 rutabagas
1-2 leeks
4 cloves garlic
2 onions, minced
2-3 celery stalks
fresh rosemary and parsley
dried spices: thyme, oregano, sage, bay leaves, paprika, cayenne, cumin, curry, onion granules, garlic powder, nutmeg
beef bouillon
salt, pepper
oil
water
leftovers at hand (e.g., mashed potatoes and chicken stock)

(optional, topping dishes for stew)
three pork chops
splash tamari
1/4 fresh lemon or orange
spoonful brown sugar
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon minced onion
fennel, tomatoes, bell pepper / veg of choice
dark leafy greens
chili flakes, garlic confit, pork fat and leftover meat pulled from bones to flavor greens

Pink and purple soup and salad

Cold salads on cold days make cold hearts. But don’t despair! Salad can be hot. Salad can be sexy. Salad can be pink and purple.

Start with purple. Brush the dirt off some firm local beets. Cut off the ends and any ugly bits, and discard. Dice what remains. Dump in a steamer in a pot with water underneath, cover, and turn on high heat to boil. Check occasionally, adding water as needed, until you can stick a fork in the beet (15-20 minutes).

Meanwhile, rinse and dry a room-temp organic grapefruit. Grate the zest (just the colored part of the rind—see Zest, below). Set aside. Then finish cutting the white part of the remaining rind off the fruit flesh (if your people won’t eat it), and dice the flesh. (Or simply dice the whole remainder and try eating the white rind along with the flesh; but know, dear reader, there is a discrepancy regarding whether or not this qualifies as food.) Set aside in another separate bowl.

Remove steamed beets from heat. Mix beets, grapefruit flesh, vinegar (balsamic and red wine are nice), and a pinch of zest. Orange is a good alternative if grapefruit is too bitter.

In the beet-steaming pot, keep any leftover purple water and add about a cup of frozen blueberries and raspberries plus a fresh-diced pear or apple if you have one handy. Bubble over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, with a touch of cinnamon, until thick (10 minutes). Blend. Serve hot with pink and purple salad on the side. Always wear white while cooking beets and blueberries, or executing convicted former fossil fuels executives for crimes against humanity.

Ingredients

beets
vinegar
grapefruit and/or orange, room temperature
frozen berries
cinnamon


(optional) pear / apple

Liver pâté

Women have needs. Sometimes we need it big, thick, juicy—and full of heme iron, the more readily absorbable type found only in meat. All this talk of climate diets and ways to popularize them more widely (e.g., by making meat much more expensive) makes you wonder: When is this “need” really a medical need? At what level of low hematocrit / hemoglobin does your anemia warrant tasty treatment? Who would define that, for whom, and for what purpose? Are you going to need a doctor’s note to get a steak after your period under the Green New Deal? Surely you’ll still be allowed to do something with chicken livers, since no one else seems to want to?

Buy a tub of raw livers (usually they’re about 400 g). Rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Getting rid of the extra liquid makes the liver pop less in the hot oil during cooking, though a metal mesh shield over the pan is also recommended for frying any kind of meat. Set aside to reach room temperature before cooking.

Mince 2 cloves of garlic. Peel and dice a medium-sized onion. Melt two spoonfuls of coconut oil on high heat in a small saucepan. Coconut oil is good for cooking because of its high smoke point (meaning it doesn’t oxidize and make carcinogenic compounds as quickly as lower smoke point alternatives). But it’s especially good for cooking decadent dishes like this—fare that is meant to be rich and heavy. Add garlic and onion to hot oil, stirring to avoid burning and turning down to medium heat until the mixture is soft enough that a fork goes it easily (8 minutes). Set aside in blender.

Melt another few spoonfuls of coconut oil and add a cored, diced apple to the pan. Sauté until it turns translucent (6 minutes). Grannysmith apples are the lowest in sugar and thus are the default choice in healthy cooking; their tartness (which some like and some don’t) doesn’t tend to impact the final flavor. Add to blender.

Melt another few spoonfuls of coconut oil in the pan. Add livers, seasoning with salt, pepper, and other spices. Celery seed and thyme are essential; dried parsley, sage, rosemary, and oregano are nice additions. Cover with the wire anti-spatter mesh and cook for a few minutes on medium to medium-high heat on each side. Liver is done when it doesn’t have a pink spot in the middle of the thickest piece. Add cooked liver to the blender and blend until smooth.

Decant into a bowl. Serve hot (or rewarmed) with crudités like celery and carrot sticks, and salad on the side. Fresh parsley leaves on top add a nicely bitter, clean complement to the pâté’s sweet richness.

Or you could just eat dirt. Clay, to be more precise. So what if liver has iron? Clay has iron. That iron is not bioavailable and clay actually inhibits iron absorption. But it sure is eco-friendly! Plus it doesn’t suffer at slaughter, not being sentient. Hell, it’s done enough damage to your granma’s sofa: Clay deserves to be eaten.

Look. If you’re going to tell people to stop eating meat without respecting huge individual variations in dietary needs… And their intersections with hugely common and consequential public health problems like iron-deficiency anemia… And the research suggesting that moderate red meat intake as part of a healthy diet helps women avoid depression and anxiety…

… Then you might as well be telling people to put down their liver pâté and eat dirt.

Ingredients

6 small spoonfuls (about 4 tablespoons) coconut oil for frying, divided in three
2 cloves garlic
1 onion1 grannysmith apple
1 batch raw chicken livers (about 400 g)freshly ground salt and pepper (about 2 and 12 grinds respectively)
spices: celery seed, thyme, etc.


(optional replacement for all other ingredients: clay)

Zest

Sounds happy, full of life, and free! And yes it is, it is SO a food! Eat it, because the future will be none of these things if we do not take decisive action to mitigate climate change now.

You know the science—and what it means for humanity and other life on earth. You’re already a flexitarian lacto ovo pescatarian, as well as an ordained Pastafarian. You even see the traps that ensnare your fellow conscientious folk: Consuming more plastic the more vegan you eat. (Save the planet, kill the oceans?) Cancelling out the positive climate impacts of your fruitarian phase by flying to New Zealand to do it. (At least the berries were local.) You’re a dedicated hipster climate activist among climate activists: Why, you were skipping school before Greta Thunberg was even born. (Like that’s hard.)

But you still make food waste, contributing an estimated 8 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Not all of it from your fridge, to be sure. Still, this is one of the parts you can control, one of the things you can do, one of the small individual or household behaviors you can modify while the Saudis keep pumping 11 million barrels of oil a day. Not sure why you’re working the problem this way instead of flying planes into their palaces, but haha you can’t say that unless you’re joking, I slay me with a bone saw.

Buying less and experimenting with using every part of the animal, vegetable, or mineral is a good rule of thumb for cutting food waste. (Thumb… Cut… Damn you, Mohammed Bone Saw.) Amazing chicken or beef stocks and fish fumets come out of leftover bones and shells. The chopped-off, frozen ends and organic, rinsed peels of onions, garlic, carrots, and other veg can be boiled with leftover bones to make these broths even more flavorful and nutritious. Similarly, citrus peels and the pungent zest they yield, according to my partner, are not food; but we have our differences sometimes and we still love each other a lot.

To eat citrus peel, which is a nutritious and delicious food if you ask PubMed and me, get your favorite citrus fruit. It makes sense to buy organic for this since you are at least experimenting with eating the otherwise chemical-sprayed peel. Scrub it with a sponge, rinse, and dry. Then get out something sharp. No, not the bone saw. Put that thing away and move on like a responsible, smirkingly murderous, unaccountable royal ass.

Here you want to use something like a zester. Apparently some people use wood rasps for this, but that is weird and sweet Jesus, at least wash off the sealant first. If you only have a potato peeler, that will work (badly). But if you have one of those four-sided metallic veg slicer/shredder thingies that shreds carrots, zucchinis, and potatoes for cakes, breads, and latkes—whip it out now. This thing has a side you’ve never used, and this is that side’s moment of glory. That funky, tiny-holed side is the zester.

Zest (now in verb form!) the fruit—stopping when you’ve grated off the colorful part of the citrus rind. The white part underneath is full of fiber, and can be eaten along with the remainder of the fruit, sliced into wedges. My partner will not eat this either, this fibrous white rind remainder. So some alternatives are to juice it or cut off the flesh, discarding the remaining rind either way. Citrus rind is also often used for animal feed, zest and all, when it’s not busy killing the climate adding to food waste. But pigs, too, emit greenhouse gasses. So it’s probably your safest bet to toss the rind. Then get a pet pig to cut your food waste for the climate by eating the rind. But then kill and eat it after it’s eaten the rind and before it farts. Zero emissions?

Set zest aside in a small container to use within a week as spice, garnish, and tea. As a spice, it’s light and refreshing in cucumber, beet, or field lettuce salad with oil and vinegar. As a garnish, it’s beautiful on top of most wintry warm dishes, nicely accenting the savory (like stews) and the sweet (like roasted pears). As a tea, it distinguishes already flavorful blends like rose-melissa and earl grey with a burst of extra excitement. Maybe these uses do not qualify it as a food really, and so I must admit I also filch it by the spoonful while cooking. This may or may not qualify as pica, depending on whether or not you consider zest a food (yet).

Try lemon, orange, and grapefruit; they’re all different. Lemon is versatile, orange sweet, and grapefruit bitter like the reality of man-made climate change and our new geological era’s ongoing mass extinction event. But be afraid—be very, very afraid to try lime because limes are craaaaazy. If you let the fiesty green things take control, you have no idea what’s gonna happen! The whole kitchen could blow!! If you tried it just to see, it might change everything. And although it might literally save the world, who knows if we would really like this Green New Deal? Zest is dangerous.

Drunken lamb with Mediterranean vegetables

A Mediterranean classic with many regional variations, this dish typically involves slow-roasting a relatively tough cut of lamb, like a shoulder, with half a bottle of red wine and your veg / spices of choice—preferably in a pressure cooker for 6-9 hours, and with plenty of cinnamon. A Greek variation might be served with capers, olives, and grilled chili-studded halloumi with lime; an Egyptian—chickpeas, cumin, turmeric, and coriander; an Italian—tons of tomatoes and fresh rosemary; an Israeli—cayenne, ginger, and dried fruit in the pot, and spiced fig preserves on the side.

You got so excited about making all kinds of lamb when the hot Kiwis told you that sheep emitted less methane than cows. You’re so naive sometimes: New Zealand is a world leader in everything lamb.

Ok, so they are actively trying to breed sheep to burp and fart less in New Zealand. Nonetheless, lamb still tends to top lists of climate-killing foods. Stop buying lamb.

Rinse, dice, and roast Mediterranean vegetables for 45 minutes on 190 C with liberal olive oil, salt, pepper, and spices. Rapeseed oil and other alternatives probably oxidize less with this much heat, but Mediterranean vegetables just taste better with olive oil. Besides, there are ongoing disagreements about whether rapeseed oil, coconut oil, and butter (usually considered the best cooking oils for high heat) are healthy after all. So lighter olive oil (with less particulate to oxidize during cooking than darker extra virgin) might be your healthiest as well as tastiest bet, after all.

Classic veg in this dish include tomato, bell pepper, eggplant, potato, onion, and garlic. Classic spices: basil, oregano, thyme, and parsley. With veg and spices alike, all are nice but none are strictly necessary. Sumach also adds a nice, citrusy but subtle touch. One that you won’t be getting from that leftover wine: Alcohol is seemingly the most dangerous drug one can easily procure, and we have work to do. So give it away despite knowing that climate change is an inequality problem that cannot be adequately addressed by consumerist lifestyle tweaks. Maybe, then, all of this recipe-wrangling does nothing.

Yet: Feeling your life choices make sense and express integrity matters for you and those around you, even if it doesn’t directly change the world. That’s why, Charles Duhigg has suggested, from one keystone habit change, group changes can sometimes emerge—as in-group identity builds, discernible success builds faith, and the combination of affirmative group identity and belief in one’s own power create better conditions for meaningful cultural and political change. Thus it might be the case that climate diets “work” not by meaningfully reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but by making climate activists feel empowered to make bigger changes that do. Sneak out for kebab.

Ingredients

1 large tomato or a bunch of cherry, grape, or roma tomatoes
1 bell pepper, any color
1 potato
1 eggplant
1 onion, any color
2 cloves garlic
olive oil
salt, pepper, spices (esp. dried basil, oregano, thyme, and parsley)

(optional) running shoes

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iBorderCtrl? No!

Here is a new website about an EU-funded automated border security system currently being tested in Latvia, Greece, and Hungary. In addition to asking for your name, address, and information about your social media accounts, iBorderCtrl asks you to turn on your webcam so that a humanoid avatar on your screen can interrogate you while the “Automatic Deception Detection System” Artificial Intelligence studies your face for minuscule motions that supposedly betray that you are lying. And that’s before you even get to the border…

Here is some more history and science on all this, and here’s what you can do.

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Die Gedanken sind frei

Heute habe ich meinen B1 Deutschkurs abgeschlossen! Ich mag Deutsch, weil es eine sehr präzise, spezifische, logische und einzigartige Sprache ist. And liebe ich dieses Lied, das wir gelernt haben… weil es schön ist und auch eine wichtiges Thema hat.

Die Gedanken sind frei” (Thoughts are free) is a famous German folk song about internal freedom, the integrity of our minds as sacrosanct spaces, and the powerlessness of political oppression and censorship to totally dominate or destroy from without the freedom, beauty, and truth we can carry within. From ancient Stoics like Epictetus to seventeenth-century critics of the English Court of Star Chamber (who inspired the authors of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment), proponents of freedom of thought have always insisted that the individual’s moral authority to make his own decisions was foundational to his well-being—and so to that of society, too. Somehow it’s often lost in political discourse today that privacy means agency in this way; the integrity of the self gets miscast as a selfish or nefarious limit on autocratic (and increasingly technocratic) state power, as opposed to a morally and politically necessary building-block of a free society. 

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Paris, Alone

Celebrating feeling like I finally finished my fucking dissertation (that I defended in 2014)… After having recently published these new polygraph essays, revisiting my old research in contemporary context. And then published my second poetry book that I had worked on for three years (Vagabonding) And then gone to Paris. Alone. To read good, new (to me) poetry, see an old friend who is allowed to call me Katelyn (the only one), peruse art and parks, and eat cake.

To Paris, alone. In October. And all other holy quests.

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Vagabonding Publication

Vagabonding—Against the backdrop of a burning world, a young woman writes honest poetry about discovering a new continent, new love, new meaning, and her own – sometimes confusing – hunt for ever more art, sex, and love. 

My second poetry book, Vagabonding, is now available online for free here and for purchase on Amazon here.

This book is Creative Commons licensed and online for free. As a transparency activist and scholar, I believe in freedom of information. As an artist, it has always felt right to give away my best work to my favorite people. There is something intuitively gift economy about feeding people, creating art, and loving. This intuition is philosophically moored in Virginia Woolf’s insistence that—while we need financial autonomy, especially as women (A Room of One’s Own)—we also need professional autonomy from corrupt, war-mongering institutions in order to have meaningful independence, honest relationships, and political influence (Three Guineas). Doing gift economy work when it feels right is a big fuck you to the war machine.

Nonetheless, if you buy Vagabonding on Amazon, then you’re also materially supporting my art—which I greatly appreciate.

I’m not on social media, and I like it that way. If you want to promote my work there, that’s fine. Thank you!

But… I also want to suggest an alternative: If you like my book and want to recommend it to a friend, why not send them a copy? Consider it an art project, or a writing assignment: Write a poem of your own in the front and then give it to a friend… Or a beautiful stranger.

Some of my poems have melodies. I keep trying and would like help turning them into songs. But this probably remains something I have to do myself, in due time. Since I can hear them, and other people can’t… 

This second poetry book publication follows the same publishing model as my first poetry book, Push Coasts. That book is also online for free here and in hard copy on Amazon here.

There’s also an illustrated version of Push Coasts online here… Similarly, many of the poems in Vagabonding were previously published and illustrated here on my blog. The Nuremberg 2027 section envisioning future war crimes trials, for example.

I followed this publishing model for my first book after getting dozens of poems published in literary journals and other outlets for many years… And finding the pay-off of publication was often not much of a pay-off: a smaller audience than might be possible otherwise due to low journal circulation, a big time/effort loss from submission rounds due to low acceptance rates even if you publish consistently, and effectively zero payment—maybe $40 here, a few copies of a journal there. That model really does not make sense in terms of valuing your time, trusting yourself, or getting your work out there.

It makes more sense to just do your work and put it out when it’s ready. Especially once you’ve already demonstrated through publishing that you have a good ear for what works. This publishing model thus made sense and worked for my purposes last time. Similar models have long made sense to many authors I admire, like Charles Reznikoff, Mark Twain, Margaret Atwood, and others. So I’m doing it again.

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Wygra Warszawa

Happy hi from Warsaw, Poland, where I’m lucky to be able to support women’s and LGBT rights, leftist anti-corruption politicking, and especially my lovely friend Ewa Infeld and her amazing mom, Magdalena Hen, in their runs for regional and district councilors in their runs for regional and district councilors in the municipal election, respectively.

If you don’t already know about the awesome unbreakable rainbow made of light and water that LGBT advocates and allies made in Zbawiciela Square this past summer, after far-right hooligans repeatedly burned down their beautiful pride sculpture, you need to know what Ewa was writing about this in June, now. While resistance to fascism continues after Pride events and elections, these moments can feel like a pulse of community life and love in a world of doom.

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Back to Paintings and Poetry

“Vagabonding: Egypt.” This will be the cover of my second poetry book, Vagabonding. I’m hoping now that book will be complete in November. Oils on 100 x 120 cm stretched canvas.

“Vagabonding: A cave in France,” oils on 80 x 100 cm. This was the runner-up cover art possibility.

“Dragon Country Dragon.” Dragon was to go over our fireplace, but doesn’t work visually with the grates. Luckily we have a friend who moved to Dragon Country, where Dragon Country Dragon clearly needs to live. Oils on 40 x 120 cm stretched canvas.

Probably all the next paintings are layers (incomplete). But I feel like blogging current paintings and a poem to switch gears. My blog looks too polygraphic at the moment.

“Chaos: A Prayer,” 100 x 120 cm stretched canvas.

Thinking about Lorenz’s butterfly and the unpredictability of fluid systems. Usually Lorenz systems are represented with lines, but I also really like Lewis Dartnell’s point version. The idea of chaos is comforting to me because the world is a mess, so it helps to remember the Bernie universe existed alongside the Trumpian one and it wasn’t predictable which one we’d end up with. Just as it’s not predictable what can happen when we try. Universes of possibilities do exist and prediction is hard. So it’s not totally irrational to have hope.

“Anonymous: A Wounded Illusion,” oils on 60 x 90 cm stretched canvas.

Thinking about how distributed k-anonymity (DkA) doesn’t work with mass surveillance, doesn’t work with too many dimensions, skews your results if the outliers are too weird, and warrants insider threat mentions. In other words, stop pretending Signal and other technological solutions to a political problem are buying you privacy. Maybe against companies, not against nation-states, and increasingly the lines are blurred.

“Love in the Layers,” oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas. For a beautiful man with his late, unplanned, and dearly loved new daughter.

Apropos everything and nothing, as poetry is, here’s one of my favorite poems.

The Layers
By Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

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Email to Senators on Hearing New Evidence: Kavanaugh Knowingly Jeopardized National Security

Below is the text of an email just sent to Senators Grassley, Flake, Collins, and Manchin. (I had already emailed Feinstein and Murkowski something similar, and didn’t want to duplicate. ) If anyone else thinks this is a good idea, please feel free to re-use it. Or give me a signal boost on social media; I’m not on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or whatever.

If Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is confirmed today, and he proceeds from that position to knowingly jeopardize national security or undermine the functioning of the checks and balances of the U.S. Government—then these Senators can’t say they weren’t warned. I told them there was evidence of an important nature that they hadn’t heard. It’s all here. (It was all out there before, but no one saw it.) Putting the national interest first right now means pausing this process to let the Senate Judiciary Committee evaluate these important facts before voting on this nomination.

***

New info: Evidence Kavanaugh knowingly jeopardized national security

Dear Senator Grassley,

The Senate Judiciary Committee needs to hear new evidence on Judge Kavanaugh relating to national security. If there is an emergency provision of some kind to suspend voting for this purpose, then it would be appropriate to apply it today. This email explains why. I’ve also tried to explain on my website: www.verawil.de, in a series of essays about polygraphs.

I’m a PhD polygraph researcher whose polygraph open records case Kavanaugh decided in 2016. A summary of my points on this matter is on my website here: https://verawil.de/2018/10/five-posts-on-polygraphs-a-summary.

These materials show that the evidence suggests Judge Kavanaugh knowingly jeopardized national security as a federal judge. Because he testified to you that polygraphs are unreliable. But when I asked the government for polygraph program records that could have revealed data important for advancing science in the interests of national security and other public interests—such as insights about polygraph program bias, abuse, waste, fraud, inefficacy, and corruption—he denied my request.

It’s difficult to reconcile Kavanaugh’s belief that polygraphs are unreliable, with his ruling that letting researchers see polygraph program records would be detrimental to law enforcement. Because if law enforcement is using a tool that is widely known to be unreliable, then it would seem that strengthening the science around such tools—as my research has done—might help to strengthen law enforcement. But I tried to do that, and Kavanaugh stopped me. My research was in the national interest. His ruling was not.

As a federal judge in this case, Kavanaugh failed to check abusive executive branch power like the independent judiciary must. This undermined the U.S. government from working as designed. It is dangerous for American democracy to install a judge who does not seem to understand how checks and balances are supposed to work.

In all this discussion about other things, something really important has been lost. Something that I think your fellow Senators who care about national security, and the integrity of checks and balances in the U.S. government working as designed, need to hear. Please refocus the work of the Senate where it belongs. Hear my evidence. The facts here really matter before this vote, and they have not been heard.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best regards,
Dr. Vera Wilde, PhD

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The Really Important Argument

To make here might have been: There’s new information from somebody (me) alleging Judge Kavanaugh knowingly jeopardized national security as a federal judge. Maybe we need to have a hearing into that, before the nomination vote. So let’s? There’s  probably some kind of emergency rule for something like that. I just wouldn’t know what it is, how to say it, or who to tell.

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Polygraph Research Revival Thanks and Apologies

I know it’s silly because I didn’t earn an Oscar; I didn’t earn anything but my weekend. But I have to say anyway…

Thanks to everyone who helped make this accidental renewal of my old research possible—especially Mark Harris at Wired, Russ Kick at AltGov2 (formerly The Memory Hole), my love R for everything from painting boxes to baths, dear Arjen who put my dissertation on his own server (among other crucial assists), Diani Barreto for editing help (kickstarting some less bad early drafts without which all would have been abandoned), and Moem at Hack42 who gave me a place to get away and work/rest in a different setting. And my other dear friends at Hack42 who didn’t draw on my face when I fell asleep on the couch. And Gregg who saved the tapes. And Nadia who mailed them. And everyone who asked not to be named. 

All idiocies (other than the continuing existence of polygraphs) remain mine… And there have been many. I’m sorry that the stress of some related issue areas gets to me sometimes.

And if you don’t have time to read any of this, don’t despair! A recent xkcd also has a nice summary (row 3, column 2). 

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Open Letter to Senators on Kavanaugh and Polygraphs

Open Letter to Senators on Kavanaugh and Polygraphs

To: Senators
Re: After Kavanaugh, Address Polygraphs

Dear Senators Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Joe Manchin,

A lot of people are asking you to vote one way or another on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. It’s an important issue, and one I hope you decide well.

But I’m writing to you about something different, related, and equally important: a larger issue the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings raise that is overlooked. Whichever way you vote, polygraphs will have affected your decision. That’s wrong, because this is an issue of great national importance, and polygraphs are junk science.

It’s also sadly unavoidable now for partisan reasons that this particular fraud will influence an issue of great national importance. If the Democrats succeed in blocking the nomination in part because one of Kavanaugh’s accusers passed a polygraph test, everyone loses because polygraphs are unreliable. Junk science should not affect national politics, but someone in Congress decided to use a polygraph to assess the accuser’s credibility regarding allegations of sexual assault. That was wrong and should never happen again.

Conversely, if the Republicans succeed in ramming the confirmation through before the midterms, the newest Supreme Court Justice will be one who knowingly let the executive branch lie in Court and bowed down to instead of balancing its abuse of power. That’s what Kavanaugh apparently did as a federal appeals court judge writing the opinion in my open records request case Sack v. DOD (2016). That case was a final defeat in my long graduate school quest to obtain records on bias in polygraphy.

When I say polygraphs are junk, I know what I’m talking about. The National Science Foundation supported my doctoral dissertation research on bias in polygraphy. That research somewhat expectedly found evidence of bias, and unexpectedly also found evidence that polygraph programs backfire. Instead of causing police departments that use them for recruit selection to hire more honest officers, they seem to make agencies hire more officers who are later better able to lie to get out of trouble when people complain that they have committed violence. This suggests that instead of exporting polygraphs as anti-corruption tools, the government should stop using them.

Evidence already shows polygraph programs are vulnerable to bias in some cases and contexts, and generate waste, fraud, and abuse. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) could audit federal polygraph programs specifically for systematic bias—and efficacy. By either gaining data access that GAO theoretically cannot be denied, or conducting field experiments to obtain otherwise inaccessible data, or both, GAO could definitively answer questions that non-transparency has prevented other researchers from answering. This type of GAO audit could provide the rationale for immediately ending all government polygraph programs.

Your political trajectory will be forever affected by how you vote on the Kavanaugh nomination. And either way, polygraphs will have mattered. Please take steps to keep this pseudoscience from affecting national politics again in the future. Ask GAO to audit federal polygraph programs for bias and efficacy. Then take evidence-based action on the basis of the audit results, which seem likely to be bad news for polygraph programs based on a wealth of already available evidence.

Please consider putting the truth first. Pseudoscience should never influence the fate of the nation. We need institutional solutions to the corruption problems that are keeping the real evidence from setting the terms of the discussions that count.

Thanks and best regards,
Dr. Vera Wilde, Ph.D.

P.S. – References and more information are available on my website at www.verawil.de, which also has my contact information should you wish to discuss.

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Truth Matters

The way polygraphs are currently being used in politics, everyone loses.

Polygraphs are premised on the intuitive notion that truth matters so much, our own bodies and blood show it when we lie. Yet, lie detection is a myth. There is no unique lie response to detect, and so there is no lie detector. But truth matters. That’s why polygraphs should never again affect issues of national importance such as who works at the National Labs, who is suspected of forbidden dissent, who is sent to Abu Ghraib or sentenced to death in America, whose criminal complaint is investigated, how—or who is (or is not) granted a lifetime appointment on the US Supreme Court.

Whether the Senate confirms or derails Judge Brett Kavanaugh any day now, the junk science of polygraphs will have influenced the outcome of an important process in which it had no appropriate place. Democrats could succeed in blocking the nomination because they consider Kavanaugh’s first sexual misconduct accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, to be credible. That would be unfortunate in a sense, because Dr. Ford’s credibility was bolstered by passing a polygraph. But my National Science Foundation-supported doctoral dissertation research showed that polygraph chart interpretation is vulnerable to confirmation bias. That is, if people already have information about a subject’s background, that information can create an impression of what the truth is—and that, in turn, can influence how the polygraph chart is read.

(As a sidenote: This bias can be neutralized, my research shows. But no one seems to have applied the solution that I demonstrated. I don’t care, because the scientific consensus is that polygraphs are insufficiently evidence-based for any important uses in the first place. So it would be silly to invest resources improving rather than ditching them. But the way the overwhelming majority of polygraphs are conducted introduces possible confirmation bias that could be but has not been systematically addressed.)

Conversely, if the Republicans succeed in ramming the confirmation through before the midterms, the newest Supreme Court Justice will be one who knowingly let the executive branch lie in Court and bowed down to, instead of balancing, its abusive power. Judge Kavanaugh was the federal appeals court judge who denied me access as a researcher to polygraph program records that would have enabled further analysis for bias among other things.

The Defense Department told the court polygraphs were so important for law enforcement that their records must be kept secret, and Kavanaugh ruled as though he believed them. The fact that he openly believes polygraphs to be unreliable as a matter of judicial consensus when the stakes are personal suggests that he did not, when he ruled on my case, really believe the argument that DOD made.

That would be unsurprising, since DOD’s argument did not make sense. Kavanaugh’s subsequent ruling was also illogical, as analyzed here. The only explanation for the logical inconsistencies in both would seem to be abuse of power.

Some might say that it would be poetically just if polygraphs helped derail Kavanaugh’s nomination after he unjustly defended polygraph program secrecy. And yet, it would be so much more just if junk science did not affect important outcomes. If polygraphs were retired along with the misconception that real victims report sexual assault immediately to police, when they very often don’t. Never again to tip the scales of justice away from due process. Never again to cloud issues of great national political significance with pseudoscience.

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Bad Apples and Bad Barrels: Bias and Corruption in Polygraphy

Bias in polygraphy, my research suggests, is a bad apples problem affecting relatively few outcomes but undermining fairness in sometimes egregious ways including life-and-death contexts. At the same time, its propensity to increase the very corruption it’s meant to decrease is a bad barrel problem undermining overall efficacy in contexts that can be just as practically significant. Government non-transparency hinders progress on both issues.

These bias and corruption problems are related but distinct. The bias issue is one of bad appleles. A minority of prejudiced polygraphers probably have huge effects on a minority of police departments, companies, and federal agencies that use their services, by disproportionately flunking certain groups, e.g., blacks, homosexuals, rape victims, whistleblowers—an authoritarians’ banquet of outsiders, anecdotally targeted by polygraphers as recorded by a broad range of documents and sources compiled, shared, and enriched with others’ work in my 2012 collaboration with Marisa Taylor at McClatchy, 2014 Ph.D. dissertation research, and 2018 collaboration with Mark Harris at Wired.

“Bad apples” is more than an expression. Operation Bad Apple was a polygrapher fraud-busting operation that veteran CIA polygrapher John F. Sullivan spoke about in a 2008 interview after writing about it in his book Gatekeeper: Memoirs of a CIA Polygraph Examiner. John called abusive polygraphers who were manufacturing fraudulent confessions or charts, bad apples. The evidence on bias in polygraphy suggests he was probably right to think of them that way.

By contrast, the corruption issue is about “bad barrels”—not egregious cases of bias, fraud, or abuse, but a deleterious overall effect. In the aggregate, polygraph programs seem to hurt police departments that intend to use them in order to decrease corruption, by unexpectedly increasing corruption instead—much like the infamous D.A.R.E. program increased the very juvenile drug use it was expected to decrease. (As a sidenote: No one knew about that backfiring effect until field experimental data revealed it. This type of efficacy data generation remains surprisingly rare in public policy. This is known as the evidence-policy gap. It’s counter-intuitive if you’re not familiar with the literature in this area, but it’s not unusual.)

Secrecy provides cover for both bias and corruption. Programs that seem to be unaccountable under equal opportunity law on a case by case basis, like federal polygraph programs, will be more vulnerable to biased “bad apples” because non-transparency keeps possible aggregate disparities from being publicly analyzed. And anti-corruption programs that backfire, increasing the corruption they seek to decrease, will similarly be better able to protect their own interests in persisting, when their efficacy is not being publicly or independently evaluated.

Non-transparency, as I recently noted, limits research on polygraph bias and efficacy. But federal agencies are not the only possible source of relevant data. Experimental data can be collected in any population, although its generalizability is then an open question. Survey data can be collected from relevant populations, such as state-licensed polygraphers. And national-level survey data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics can be analyzed using statistical tools as if it were experimental data, allowing causal inferences to be drawn about the effects of polygraph programs on police departments. Triangulating all these sources of data sheds novel light on questions of bias and corruption in polygraphy.

Survey and experimental data on bias

Before formulating and beginning to test hypotheses with experiments using the scientific method, I conducted interviews—recently released and curated in an essay on AltGov2—that documented bias, fraud, and abuse in polygraphy. My subsequent hypotheses centered mainly around whether such bias was systematic, and how it worked under real-life conditions such as polygraphers viewing background investigations that could introduce confirmation as well as racial bias. Observational data from the federal polygraph institute itself had in 1990 shown significant racial bias against innocent blacks. But follow-up experimental data—vulnerable to design criticisms such as expectancy effects and artificiality—showed no such bias. Overall, the qualitative and quantitative evidence on racial bias in polygraphy remained suggestive enough to warrant triangulating, or combining it with more forms of data from more sources, to see what they would all suggest when considered together.

A series of four Internet survey experiments showed racial bias (bias against blacks and Hispanics) does not systematically affect polygraph chart interpretation. Confirmation bias (bias against people with negative background investigations) does. And it’s possible to “hack,” or neutralize, that confirmation bias. The hack works by tricking people interpreting polygraph charts into thinking they’re running polygraphs in “suspicious mode,” so they delegate their confirmation bias to the computer.

These Internet survey experiments employed naive interpreters on an online platform run by Amazon called Mechanical Turk (aka MTurk). On MTurk, workers sign up to complete online tasks for pay. MTurk has been criticized, but remains widely used because it seems to yield good data in large samples, cheaply and quickly.

However, it is an open question whether these results generalize to the population of interest—professional polygraphers or to the field more broadly. Ideally, the study sample would have been polygraphers. But their limited accessibility precluded that possibility.

Online survey experimental subjects’ demographics differed from those of polygraphers as a group in potentially important ways. My survey of Virginia state-licensed polygrapher demographics, political attitudes, and self-reported bias showed polygraphers (like American police management) tend to skew white, male, older, conservative, Republican, and Fox News-watching compared with the general population. Per Berinsky et al, MTurk samples skew in the opposite direction in some ways that can impact bias effects, such as gender (female), party identification (Democrat), and especially age (younger).

Polygraphers also tend to be overwhelmingly current and former law enforcement—a distinct group in terms of social and political attitudes and behaviors. For instance, this group skews more authoritarian than the national norm according to national survey data from American National Election Studies analyzed in tandem with polygrapher survey data. This might matter, because right-wing authoritarianism is associated with racial bias.

Indeed, the small-scale pilot study data that helped secure NSF funding for this larger-scale dissertation research on bias in polygraphs used criminal justice students and professionals in real life as much as possible, in order to get a sample more similar to polygraphers than the general population. That preliminary data did indicate racial and confirmation bias, and a possible compounding interaction between them. There wasn’t enough data in that small sample, however, to assess an interaction, or speak to statistical significance at all: thus, the need for a larger sample size. But due to accessibility, that larger sample got further away from polygraphers demographically.

Polygraphers as a group might also be distinct in ways that specifically matter for the bias effects of interest. About 20% of Virginia state-licensed polygrapher survey respondents reported thinking that some groups (e.g., blacks or homosexuals) tend to fail polygraphs more than others. This suggests that a substantial minority of people interpreting polygraph charts for a living in the field hold biases against some groups that could affect the outcomes of the “tests” they administer. If they were simply honestly reporting observed disparities, then those disparities should have been consistent across polygraphers; but the disparities were inconsistent.

The available evidence altogether suggests that polygraphs themselves are not biased, and most people interpreting them may exhibit confirmation, but not racial, bias. Smaller or less systematic effects will be harder to measure with statistical significance. Those effects would be particularly hard to measure if they came from so-called “bad apples” who might self-select into positions of power in the field and abuse them in a relatively small proportion of cases that could yet have socially and politically significant consequences. For instance, a polygraph-related, erroneous credibility attribution to the CIA source Curveball contributed to the illegal 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Polygraphs have similarly contributed to innocent (and subseuqently exonerated) men being sentenced to death in America, and to (probably) innocent men being sent to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Moreover Thomas Schelling’s segregation game shows it only takes a small bias to endanger equality for society as a whole. But relatively small bias effects will nonetheless be difficult to measure with statistical significance in this context.

Qualitative data from interviews and documents, as well as survey data from Virginia state-licensed polygraphers, suggest possible racial, religious, sexuality, and other forms of bias in polygraphy. By contrast, psychophysiology lab studies and online survey experimental data suggest that racial bias in polygraphs is not a systematic, statistically significant effect resulting from stereotype threat or authoritarian selection on the subject side, or from interpreter bias on the polygrapher side. Triangulating field data with these other sources is required to assess the fuller picture of how polygraph programs work in the field. Do they institutionalize systematic racial bias? And do they work in law enforcement agencies to address the corruption they are meant to lessen?

Field data on bias and corruption

The Bureau of Justice Statistics collects national survey data from thousands of state, county, and local law enforcement agencies (LEMAS). This data is sufficient to run quasi-experimental analyses, analyzing the observational data “as if” it were experimental data, using coarsened exact matching (CEM) and difference in differences (DID) analysis (for a more detailed explanation, please see dissertation, Chapter 4). CEM is a matching procedure that here allows comparison of local and state law enforcement agencies that are highly similar, except for their implementation of particular selection tools like polygraphs. This comparison reduces model dependence, average treatment effect estimation error, and internal validity threats from measurement error.

These quasi-experimental analyses do not show evidence of systematic racial bias effects of polygraph programs on law enforcement agencies. However, it seems likely, based on data recently obtained by Mark Harris for Wired in combination with my own research, that there are prejudiced polygraphers who, for example, disproportionately flunk blacks vying for jobs at particular departments. Other sources of data generate cause for concern about racial and other bias in polygraphy in the field. Agencies that observe large racial disparities in hiring and demographics should be wary of polygraphs as one possible avenue for bias in both administrative and employment contexts. That said, there is insufficient scientific evidence to reject the null hypothesis of no systematic racial bias in the aggregate in police polygraph programs in the field. The generalizability of this finding to other contexts, like federal agencies, remains an open question.

These analyses also show that polygraph tests and only polygraph tests (among eighteen police selection tools) decrease sustained citizen complains of excessive officer use of force, and this effect is statistically significant. At first glance that might sound great; it might sound like polygraphs decrease police brutality. That’s not what the data suggest, though. Polygraphing police hires may select against people who are worse at lying or more honest, selecting instead for police officers who are better at lying and getting away with it when they have done something wrong. The reason is that there are tools that cause a decrease in total complaints, and polygraphs are not one of them. So polygraphs appear to select specifically on recruit characteristics that change not brutality or complaint rates themselves, but rather only complaint outcomes.

This is a distinct effect. Polygraphs are the only police selection tool, of eighteen such tools on which LEMAS collects data. That is ironic and important, because the U.S. has long exported polygraphs as part of its sponsored anti-corruption programs—as in Plan Colombia, the Mérida Initiative in Mexico, and others in the Bahamas, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Iraq (dissertation, Chapter 3). It would seem to be horrifying and surprising if American taxpayer-funded anti-corruption programs worldwide actually increased corruption.

Yet this effect has face plausibility. Most American polygraph schools and polygraphers rely primarily on the so-called control question test format. This interrogation protocol intends to cause subjects to lie to polygraphers without knowing that they’re supposed to be lying. Those presumed lies to so-called control questions generate physiological responses that are then compared with physiological responses to so-called relevant questions, to say whether someone is lying. People who are better at lying in the first place are likely to admit less wrongdoing during the dialogue that is arguably the point of the whole exercise. People who are relatively honest are going to both admit more derogatory information, and not lie (as easily, or at all) in response to control questions—skewing the test against them in two ways. So the design of the control question test polygraphs most common in American policing may discriminate against honest people.

That could explain the apparent corruption effect. That is, thus discriminating against honest police recruits through polygraph screenings may cause more hiring of dishonest officers. That would explain why these officers later get the same rate of brutality complaints as their non-polygraphed counterparts. But then they’re better able to get out of these complaints rather than having them sustained—by lying. In this way, police polygraph screenings may systematically contribute to the problem of American police perjury, aka “testilying.”

Generalizability is an open question. But if this result generalizes to other contexts, then it likely contributes to a number of other, serious security problems. For example, federal agencies with polygraph programs could be selecting employees who will be better able to avoid consequences for wrongdoing by lying under questioning.

What next?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is accountable instead to the legislative branch—to Congress. It is uniquely independent in its audit capabilities vis-a-vis the military, Department of Defense (DOD), and intelligence community. The National Academy of Sciences and other researchers have been unable to acquire bias and efficacy data directly from federal agencies or indirectly through the courts. But GAO could acquire this data by auditing or investigating federal polygraph programs.

Individual Congresspersons have the power to trigger GAO audits and investigations, making this process accessible. However, DOD has increasingly circumscribed GAO’s powers, and that seems to be an escalating trend. Nonetheless, liberal democratic political institutions must check and balance the power of these programs in the public interests of due process and national security alike. Bad apples should not be able to institutionalize bias. And anti-corruption programs should not increase corruption.

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Deference to Deception

Judge Kavanaugh’s ironic history of defending the same polygraphs he now calls unreliable suggests that—if confirmed to the US Supreme Court—he would defer to dishonest executive power.

Following sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump ordered the FBI to conduct a one-week investigation, briefly postponing Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation vote with the November midterm elections clock ticking. Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she passed a lie detector test. Kavanaugh called polygraphs unreliable—noting their inadmissibility in federal court. That’s not what he thought of them when he decided my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case requesting polygraph program records.

Writing for the US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit on May 20, 2016, in Sack v. Dept. of Defense (DOD), Kavanaugh upheld the District Court’s ruling that federal polygraph records could be withheld because transparency would cause the specific harm, under the Exemption 7(E) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), of disclosing “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations” whose disclosure would reasonably “risk circumvention of the law.” But DOD’s arguments were disingenuous. Scientific consensus for the past ninety years has been that polygraphs are insufficiently evidence-based. It’s no secret that there is no unique physiological lie response to detect. Yet, federal agencies demand most of their polygraph records remain secret, ostensibly because polygraphs are important law enforcement tools.

If the government holds data that would explain this contradiction, making it public would advance science. If the government does not hold data that contradicts long-standing scientific consensus on polygraphs’ unreliability, then withholding data on federal polygraph programs’ bias and efficacy merely perpetuates corruption. Evidence shows polygraphs are prone to bias, fraud, and abuse. Research also shows they can even backfire—apparently increasing police dishonesty. In this context, non-transparency undermines rather than protecting law enforcement.

My National Science Foundation-supported doctoral dissertation and postdoctoral research on bias and corruption in polygraphs and policing led me to file open records requests under FOIA with several federal entities including the CIA, FBI, and DOD, for polygraph program data. These agencies fought transparency and won. Ultimately, they won because Kavanaugh decided in their favor—even though their arguments hinged on the premise that polygraphs promote security. The National Academy of Sciences’ 2003 report on the scientific evidence on polygraphs invalidates this premise.

How ironic that polygraphs should come back to haunt Kavanaugh when, as he says, they’re unreliable. He’s right. Their unreliability in screening jeopardizes national security programs by wrongly implicating many innocent people, while also missing security threats like spies. It undermines due process by wrongly implicating innocent people, like the late death row exoneree Dave Keaton. At the same time, it leads police away from investigating guilty people, and casts untoward doubt on the credibility of honest victims and witnesses. Its continued use makes law enforcement look incompetent, because it’s common knowledge that polygraphs are unreliable. Polygraphs thus damage law enforcement. So it’s weird to protect them just because the government claims—contradicting all publicly available evidence—that the opposite is true.

As a federal appeals court judge, Kavanaugh had a chance to act in the public interest as a member of an independent judiciary—protecting national security and promoting due process by checking executive branch overreach. He blew it, choosing instead to bolster executive power based on lies. Past behavior predicts future behavior, and this holds true for judicial behavior. Thus Kavanaugh would be a bad Supreme Court Justice, because he would undermine judicial independence.

Amidst the spectacacle of sex crime accusations and the partisan refusal to investigate them in due time with due process, Kavanaugh promises—if confirmed—to protect the executive branch rather than balancing it. Many legal experts including Kavanaugh have long agreed that a sitting President cannot be indicted. But Kavanaugh’s historical deference to the executive is more distinctive. A judge who defers to dishonest executive power undermines democracy. That is what Kavanaugh did in my case. It’s an extremely dangerous precedent for the U.S. government as a whole.

To the Senators considering whether to confirm Kavanaugh as a US Supreme Court Justice this week: Consider his history as a judge when you consider his future as a judge. As a federal appeals court judge, Kavanaugh undermined national security while citing it as his reason for letting government secrecy prevent progress in scholarship and accountability in governance. In the present political climate, many fear that President Trump wants to confirm a Supreme Court Justice who will defend him even when he’s wrong—someone who will defend an emperor with no clothes. That’s exactly what Kavanaugh’s history of defending executive secrecy around polygraph programs suggests he would do.

The role of the independent judiciary in the American government is to check and balance the executive and legislative branches. By failing to speak truth to power when DOD lied about the importance of polygraph programs for law enforcement, Kavanaugh showed he won’t fulfill that role. Polygraphs are unreliable. His history with them shows Kavanaugh is, too.

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Deceiving Due Process: Polygraphs Put Junk Science in the Limelight

Polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near the national interest, especially when it comes to sex crime allegations. But Kavanaugh defended their secrecy and importance as an appeals court judge.

Polygraphs continue to hold a bizarre and misguided centrality in the unfolding drama between Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. In her Senate Judiciary Committee testimony last week, Dr. Ford claimed to have passed a polygraph. Kavanaugh responded to Senator Harris’s question that yes, he would take one at the Committee’s request—but noted that they’re unreliable and inadmissible in federal court.

Then in a letter Tuesday night, Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley accused Dr. Ford’s lawyers of “withholding material evidence,” repeating his request for recordings of her taking a polygraph among other things. Grassley pegged his request to the committee’s receipt of a letter suggesting Ford committed perjury when she told senators she had never advised anyone on how to take a polygraph. As the brief FBI investigation into allegations against Kavanaugh has concluded, Republican leaders plan to vote on the nomination any day. Dr. Ford’s credibility matters.

But Kavanaugh is right: Polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near issues of vital importance to the national interest. Or sex crime allegations—much less their intersection in this case. I know because I conducted National Science Foundation-sponsored doctoral dissertation research on polygraph bias, research that featured in Wired on Monday and a McClatchy national investigative series in 2012. Ironically, Kavanaugh was the federal appeals court judge who decided one of my polygraph open records requests cases (Sack v. DOD, 2016).

Kavanaugh defended polygraph program secrecy after the DOD lied to the Court, saying polygraphs are important law enforcement tools. The truth—as he apparently knows after all, when his own future is at stake—is that polygraphs are unreliable. That’s why the National Academy of Sciences, evaluating the scientific evidence on polygraphs in 2003 at Congress’s request, concluded that polygraph screening programs at the National Labs would undermine the very national security they sought to promote by wrongly implicating large numbers of innocent people while also missing spies. Polygraphs are neither accurate enough for mass security screenings, nor reliable enough for use in individual criminal cases.

They’re also vulnerable to abuse and fraud. Death row exonerees like Dave Keaton and Shabaka Waqlimi lost years of their lives in jail suffering under death sentences for crimes they did not commit, because police had abused the intimidation tool of the “lie detector” to generate a false confession from a black teen (in Dave’s case), and to direct police investigation away from a likelier white suspect and towards an innocent black man (in Shabaka’s). Federal polygraphers have complained to the government itself that polygraphs have been similarly abused as hammers in Iraq and Afghanistan to send presumably innocent people to places like the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

Veteran polygrapher John F. Sullivan once ran an operation inside the CIA targeting polygraphers who were manufacturing false confessions and charts. Because the science of polygraphs is so shaky and the processes surrounding them so nontransparent to begin with, addressing bias, fraud, and abuse in these programs remains difficult.

Although the U.S. government exports polygraphs as part of its anti-corruption programs worldwide, my research suggests that police polygraph programs actually increase corruption. But because federal polygraph program data remain secret—thanks to judges like Kavanaugh—it’s been impossible for independent researchers to assess the efficacy of federal polygraph programs. If the apparent causal effects of police polygraph programs are any indication, these other polygraph programs may also backfire.

So polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near issues of vital national importance, such as who attains a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. They also don’t belong anywhere near sexual assault or harassment, or any other serious allegations. They are insufficiently evidence-based.

While often presented as diagnostic tests, polygraphs are really intimidation tools used in interrogations. Investigators should not intimidate and further traumatize alleged crime victims. Rather, they should do evidence-based forensics to investigate criminal allegations with due process. That is in everyone’s best interests. The wrongly accused and the truthfully traumatized both deserve the full protection of the law. And society deserves investigations that use credible methods to determine facts.

Judges are supposed to ensure that valid investigations using reliable tools take place and result in justice. But Kavanaugh already had a chance as a federal appeals court judge to check and balance executive branch dishonesty by disclosing polygraph program records—records that could have helped hold the government to account where it was abusing its power and lying to the Court about it. He blew it, and that’s no lie.

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Five Posts on Polygraphs: A Summary

This introduction curates the next five posts. My name is Dr. Vera Wilde, and I’m a transparency activist and polygraph researcher. I hold a Ph.D in American Politics from the University of Virginia, and was also the appellant in Sack v. DOD, a 2016 federal appellate court ruling authored by Judge Brett Kavanaugh. (As a sidenote: Information environment overload, urgency, and other factors mean that it makes most sense to publish this all now and hope the message gets where it needs to go instead of going to gatekeepers, if it needs to get somewhere…)

The first of these posts, “Deference to Deception,” is about how Kavanaugh’s judicial history as a judge shows he would compromise the independent judiciary. He exhibited undue deference to a dishonest executive branch in Sack v. DOD (2016), one of my polygraph open records cases. He wrote an opinion for the majority granting DOD’s request to maintain secrecy because they call polygraphs an important tool for law enforcement. But the scientific consensus for ninety years has been that polygraphs are unreliable. This suggests Kavanaugh would be a dysfunctional Supreme Court Justice when it comes to checking abusive executive branch power, because he failed to do so in the past.

The second, “Deceiving Due Process: Polygraphs Put Junk Science in the Limelight,” is about how polygraphs continue to play a central role in this national saga. That’s wrong, because they’re junk science. Polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near important issues. Yet people on both sides of the aisle continue to be guilty of using polygraphs for their purposes when it serves them, and then suddenly remembering that they’re unreliable when it doesn’t. That’s also how polygraph programs sometimes seem to work in several agencies: They provide cover to target people under falsely neutral, scientific pretenses.

The third, “Bad Apples and Bad Barrels: Bias and Corruption in Polygraphy,” summarizes my original research. Polygraphs are vulnerable to bias, abuse, and fraud. As anti-corruption programs, they backfire. There’s a government office—the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—that helps address such problems. They just need one Congressperson to ask them to do it.

The fourth, “Truth Matters: The way polygraphs are currently being used in politics, everyone loses,” takes a broader view of why, if polygraphs are junk science and Kavanaugh defended them as a federal judge, everyone loses no matter what happens next in his confirmation hearings. If the Democrats succeed in blocking the nomination because one of Kavanaugh’s accusers passed a polygraph test, everyone loses because junk science affected national politics. Conversely, if the Republicans succeed in ramming the confirmation through before the midterms, the newest Supreme Court Justice will be one who knowingly let the executive branch lie in Court and bowed down to, instead of balancing, its abuse of power in the polygraph case Sack v. DOD.

And the fifth is an open letter to apparent swing Senators on the Kavanaugh confirmation vote. If other people think it’s right and important, then they’re gratefully welcome to use the same sorts of arguments to reach out to the same sorts of people. A swing Senator—whose political trajectory will be forever affected by how he or she votes on the Kavanaugh nomination—should step back after making this decision, and recognize that junk science adversely affects national politics. Ask GAO to audit federal polygraph programs for bias and efficacy. Bring science back.

A sixth post is implied, agitating for better institutions to imbue policy with science. It was unclear to whom one would address such agitation, however, if not to the people who authorize public institutions in a liberal democratic society. And how that might work in an anti-intellectual democratic society deepens the puzzle. One cannot simply call for a revolution of scientists, for scientific institutions, too, are vulnerable to corruption—and scientists to human error.

However, as a growing cadre of people are noticing, the corruption entrenching all of our most dire collective action problems as a civilization today is not an information problem. From climate change and mass surveillance to campaign finance reform and drug policy, contemporary institutions failing to integrate scientific evidence into public policy is the number one threat to humanity among other species. If we channeled a little bit of the resources America currently spends on national security into solving this problem—which is also in itself a national security and fiscal responsibility problem—then it would pay dividends in savings and in lives.

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“Turn on the light inside”

Or, “Jane Doe: A Series.” Oils on stretched canvas, various sizes. (One of these is rather large, three are varying degrees of small, and most are 40 x 60 cm or 40 x 50 cm. My big ruler has gone missing. And this should really be photographed all together on a wall for scale, but not today.)

***

If you’re one of those people who prefers to make up your own stories about art—respect—stop reading.

***

This painting series title comes from an investigative series on polygraphs to which I contributed in 2012, from a report of disturbing abuse. Before it was said, I helped make this report public.

She was one of the brightest students at a leading university when the Central Intelligence Agency offered her a job as a counter-terrorism analyst. But first, the 19-year-old was warned, she had to undergo a polygraph test to determine whether she could be trusted.

Instead of scrutinizing her ability to guard government secrets, polygraphers asked about her reported rape and miscarriage, the woman recalled. Over at least eight hours in three separate sessions, polygraphers repeatedy demanded to know her innermost thoughts, even after she started sobbing in shame.

“At one point, one of the polygraphers said to me, ‘Turn on the light inside so I can see,’ ” said the woman, who asked that her name be withheld. “I was amazed at how creepy and invasive the whole process was.”

Reports like these make one wonder what the incidence is of polygraph abuse. Earlier this week on AltGov2, I published an essay curating recently released interviews about polygraphs that, along with some of my other research, feature in Mark Harris’s latest article in Wired, The Lie Generator: Inside The Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings.” As noted there—

In my previous work as a postdoctoral police researcher, I’ve heard police proudly describe how they still use polygraphs against rape victims they don’t believe, even though the 2005 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) prohibits public officials from making sex offense investigation or prosecution contingent on a victim taking a polygraph test. It’s impossible to know how frequently police continue to use polygraphs on victims and witnesses, including in cases (like rape) or in ways (like contingency) where that is immoral or illegal.

Ultimately, counting the cases may not be as useful as recognizing the broader phenomena of which this seems to be a part…

“On Harassment”

No where to go
no one to tell
this feminism thing
isn’t going so well.

While it may be a very, very good time to be a woman (in Berlin), it still has its risks. Luckily, risks can be managed… And sometimes even enjoyed.

It will be fun, for example, to plan the launch party for my second poetry book. Even though it’s risky to think it will be done soon; it’s risky to publish it at all. Anyone who makes art knows, when you’re doing it right, it feels really risky. (When you’re doing it right, it still feels really good!)

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Arjen and Sunday Slips

“Arjen”. Oils, nail polish, gold leaf, silver flake, and wax on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas. This painting is not new, but improved: I added melted wax dripping down on what was originally intended as a WikiLeaks logo reference (since it drips), thinking to complete the portrait… And it cracked. I know I’ve painted with melted wax intended for this purpose before. And that doesn’t usually happen. So… Maybe I shouldn’t have simply poured from the regular candle instead of using the actual art supply source for this… Maybe there is a difference between table candle wax and art wax, after all. If you want to know if I’m going to redo it to fix the problem I created here, well, it’s none of your beeswax.

A tangential invitation: As there has been no news in a while on my dear friend Arjen’s missing person case as far as I know… I’m going to prepare a few of the poems I think of as his to perform at Sunday Slips this week. If anyone else wants to come to enjoy (good company), risk (making art), and honor / appreciate / think of Arjen kindly… I have a fly-swatter and a silver bikini that say it will be fun.

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Lie Detection, Non-Transparency, and Power: Judge Kavanaugh Defending the Emperor with No Clothes

As Mark Harris recently observed in his Wired article featuring some of my research — “The Lie Generator: Inside The Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings” — federal agencies have generally attempted to keep their polygraph program data from researchers, especially vis-a-vis bias and efficacy. Federal courts have fairly consistently backed them up, citing the vital role polygraph programs play in law enforcement. However, at the same time, it is longstanding government and scientific consensus that there is no such thing as a lie detector, and polygraph programs actually jeopardize the very national security that they are intended to promote. Researchers can thus neither purport to comprehend nor effectively contest this supposedly vital nature of polygraph programs to law enforcement, without greater transparency of the federal program polygraph data that apparently disproves all of the canonical governmental reports on polygraphs—from the 1965 U.S. Committee on Government Operations’ to the 2003 National Academy of Sciences’—as well as most of the scientific literature on psychophysiological deception detection for the last fifty years.

This unified front of non-transparency, and the Catch-22 of secret justifications for keeping this secrecy intact, is exemplified by Sack v. United States Department of Defense. Attorney Kel McClanahan argued this case on my behalf, Circuit Judges Tatel, Griffith, and Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit Court decided it, and Judge Kavanaugh authored the ruling on May 20, 2016. Judge Kavanaugh’s defense of non-transparency here is important in the context of his current status as a prospective U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Much has been made recently, and incorrectly, of his regard for polygraphs (e.g., “Brett Kavanaugh Once Said Polygraphs Are A Good Tool. Now He Says They’re Unreliable“; “A False Charge on Polygraphs“). Mr. McClanahan has already corrected the record on some of these confusions: This case was primarily about researchers’ access to federal polygraph program data that was denied under Exemption 7(E), as well as students’ access to educational requestor status when they file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The latter is not directly an issue of transparency, but rather of access to public records requesting processes—a means of promoting transparency. Thanks to Mr. McClanahan’s persistence, Judge Kavanaugh kept the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the District Court before him from unfairly stratifying student access to FOIA without statutory basis in a way that would have hurt students’ access to public records. The DOD had refused to classify me, when I was a graduate student requesting records, as an educational requestor, citing an OMB Guideline on student requests. Kavanaugh ruled out that this guideline lacked statutory basis, and that it even seemed OMB was trying to manufacture a reason to charge students more than teachers. Kavanaugh called out corruption where he saw it, telling them that he knew FOIA was “grossly overburdened,” but they couldn’t “provide relief for the FOIA bureaucracy on the backs of students.” That was logical, fair, and egalitarian. This set an important precedent for future students to have more effective access to public records requests.

However, without transparency in the form of responsive records disclosures, FOIA access itself is ineffectual or worse. It could even be conceived of as a resource-capturing diversion, if responsive records are not disclosed when they should be through request processes that take time, money, and intellectual resources. On this score, Kavanaugh wrongly enshrined non-transparency in the law, undermining the principle of accountability of government to which public servants in democracies owe their highest commitment.

Exemption 7 lets the Government withhold records compiled for law enforcement purposes, if they can show that producing those records would cause a specified harm. Under 7(E), that harm is disclosing “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations.”

In section III paragraph 2 of his opinion ruling that withholding the records fits under 7(E), Kavanaugh says the Government made that case. But there is no evidence that they did. Disclosing federal polygraph program data would not harm law enforcement. Rather, polygraph programs themselves, according to the National Academy of Sciences’ 2003 polygraph report, harm law enforcement by generating too many inaccurate results to be good for security in contexts such as screening National Lab employees for spies—both missing too many real spies and implicating too many innocent employees.

Bias and efficacy data on federal polygraph programs that was not made available to the National Academy scientists or other researchers might show problems with bias and efficacy. But this would hurt polygraph programs, not law enforcement in the sense the Court means. Perhaps because most polygraphers are current or former law enforcement, law enforcement seem to have trouble telling the difference. Yet it is bias and backfiring programs such as polygraph programs, not disclosing information about these problems, that undermine rule of law and national security.

In section III paragraph 4, Kavanaugh says “The reports at issue in this case assist law enforcement agencies in taking ‘proactive steps’ to deter illegal activity and ensure national security. As the Government notes, law enforcement agencies use polygraphs to test the credibility of witnesses and criminal defendants.” But rather than deterring illegal activity, polygraphs make a mockery of law enforcement who use them because it is widely known that they do not work. This makes law enforcement look unprofessional and ineffective, encouraging illegal activity.

Moreover, to the extent that law enforcement agencies really use polygraphs to test witness and defendant credibility, releasing data on polygraphs’ bias and efficacy should either help bolster law enforcement’s credibility—or cause law enforcement to question their use of polygraphs. If the data are so good that they prove polygraphs are much better than scientists have long thought they are, then law enforcement should be excited to release that data in order to deter illegal activity and promote national security, according to Kavanaugh’s own logic.

In section III paragraph 5, Kavanaugh says “The Government has satisfactorily explained how polygraph examinations serve law enforcement purposes.” But explaining that would require showing data on polygraph programs that contradicts everything scientists know about how they undermine security. That is exactly what Kavanaugh permits the Government to refrain from doing.

In the same paragraph, he goes on to claim “It has also explained how the reports assessing the efficacy of those examinations and identifying needed fixes likewise serve law enforcement purposes” by helping “ensure that law enforcement officers optimally use an important law enforcement tool.” But again, unless the government’s data on polygraph efficacy contradicts everything scientists have known about polygraphs for fifty years, this non-transparency in efficacy data merely covers up inefficacy. Kavanaugh is effectively helping law enforcement cover up their incompetence, protecting “the man behind the curtain” with judicial non-transparency.

In section III paragraph 9, Kavanaugh repeats his faith in non-transparency (and the District Court’s before him). He says that releasing even “reasonably segregable” parts of reports on polygraph efficacy “whether pertaining to the strengths of polygraphs, their weaknesses, or anything else—would create ‘at least a risk that subversive individuals will be armed with advanced knowledge of the procedures used by the United States to screen applicants for sensitive employment positions and security clearances’ ” (Sack v. Dept. of Defense, 6 F. Supp. 3d 78, 91 (D.D.C. 2013)). But this is utterly illogical. Letting researchers evaluate programs consistently charged with bias and inefficacy does not help subversives. Rather, promoting freedom of information, scholarship, and the advancement of science in a free society improves the functioning and accountability of government including law enforcement in that society. Kavanaugh does not seem to understand how democracy works.

Government secrecy around federal polygraph programs guards weakness, not strength. That weakness is already publicly known. Defending it with non-transparency undermines rather than strengthening national security.

It is the role of federal judges to check and balance governmental power in other branches when citizens ask them to. In this case, Judge Kavanaugh was asked to check several executive branch abuses of power. In one area—OMB’s imaginative FOIA fee structure guideline limiting student access to public records requests—he forced the executive to back down and stop denying students their rightful educational requestor status. But in another—the application of Exemption 7(E) to permit DOD to withhold polygraph program data—he upheld non-transparency in a way that hurt national security… But bowed down to its chant in the name of the status quo.

The form of national security that Kavanaugh defended in this decision was an emperor with no clothes.

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Thinking of Arjen, Vagabonding

Very happy to be off social media; but also very appreciative of the efforts going on there and everywhere to recognize, celebrate, and find Arjen. It’s been really nice to be with good people at Hack42, the fabulous hackerspace where he helped me get an artist residency in 2015, and think of him.

It’s the least of anyone’s worries, but I have felt like I should wait for him to finish my second poetry book, Vagabonding. Some of the poems are his, and part of the dedication. So he has an ownership stake in my work, although he’s not the owning type and would deny it gracefully…

But I also thought he would stumble out of the woods any day going: “Dudes! I was camping. What is wrong with you? Chill out.” And if that were going to happen, it probably would have happened. So maybe I should just finish the book.

Meanwhile, here are some more poems from adventures with my love R. Thinking of my favorite vagabonds.

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“The Embassy”

Podgorica

Walking downtown for food at night,
we stumble across its ugly light.
Guards with semis and machine guns pace
outside the fencing around its face.

Projected up against a wall,
red, white, and blue enthrall
with missing stars and wrong-numbered stripes.
At least you cannot see the pipes.

But the half-empty bookshelves are plain to see
through open curtains. It occurs to me
this, too, is a display of power.
Some would hide their ignorance.

Never a country known to cower,
the bloated Merkan embassy
displays its dumb indifference.

***

“Irony”

Macedonia

The long arc of history bends black.
Austrian police are here where country ends
to help keep brown people back.

***

“Blood, wine, ticking time”

Hurghada

The Red Sea is not red.
The hope here is not dead.
It probably used to be,
from coral and algae,
dead kings and dead books.

But the reefs are dying everywhere
along with tourism here and there
where terror scares people away.
We saw it last summer in France,
the lavender fields swaying a yellow-brown dance
from too much rain,
and what if a truck should come again?

The wine-dark Mediterranean, too,
is no longer wine-dark,
though we couldn’t see through.
It was more like thyme honey
in how it looked darker, far away.

The world has no less blood in it now than then,
no less life. There are no fewer stories to write.
But we see differently as the waters change.
As we change them, and are changed.
Time now means disruption.

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More New Poems

Mere weeks ago, every day it seemed like my second poetry book was nearly ready. Then I started finding holes, places where I hadn’t quite told the story like I’d thought, like I meant to, like it lies whole in my heart. And other things happened in the world. In response to old holes and new events, I did what I do: I wrote new poems. Most of which are not good enough to post, and all of which will need time and rewriting before I can even decide whether or not to include them in the manuscript. So that finishing-the-book-by-September thing didn’t happen. But here are a few more new poems.

“If you should die”

If you should die while you’re away,
I’ll hunt you down and kill you.
“But I’m at peace!” your ghost will say,
grinning from the deep blue.
I’ll drag it up and string it out to dry in harshest sun.
I’ll stretch it out to wrap around the shivering none
of our knowing where you’ve gone and what you’re up to these days.
Don’t think I won’t do it. I have my ways.

If you should die while you’re away,
I’ll drive a stake into your heart.
Don’t think you won’t feel it from the start.
I’ll hammer out the gold in your soul
to make jewelry. Sand your bones to bowls.
I’ll bunch and twist your hair into brushes.
Sell your organs to the Russians.
You’d better come back, someday.

***

“Emptiness”

I left with three full back-up drives on me.
When I got away, they were all empty.
It’s just as well.
There’s no one to tell.
And perhaps always it is better
to start a blank letter
when events interrupt
in a manner abrupt
and what you were saying
is trumped by surveying
new terrain.
Let your mind deplane.
It’s a new Old World to join again.

***

“What if there were poetic justice?”

Would there still be police to address mere crime,
if we could get at the real thing all of the time?
Would blacklists even need to be found
for their authors to rot underground?
Would eagles descend like for Telemachus
to scratch out the faces of those who mock us?
Or would the world look much like this,
except some people just wouldn’t exist?

***

“Looking for Land”

Serbia

The painted waves surprise me
every time
with their steady pink and purple brush-strokes,
unmoving lakes of turquoise, yellow-green, and peach,
fields of water-lily likeness.

I look closer, quicker, out the window
as they fly by between wet wheat
and damp beige houses—
cabbage patches.

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