Nonprofit compensation and expenses: What’s fair? What’s typical?

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 29: Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, conduct a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in  Rayburn Building on whether Planned Parenthood Federation of America, federally funded, September 29, 2015. PPFA President Cecile Richards, testified. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 29: Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, conduct a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Rayburn Building on whether Planned Parenthood Federation of America, federally funded, September 29, 2015. PPFA President Cecile Richards, testified. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Sept. 29 hearing on Planned Parenthood’s taxpayer funding – one incident in the GOP’s war on women’s rights – has received extensive media coverage. What I want to talk about today is Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s grilling of Planned Parenthood (PP) President Cecile Richards about her compensation.

According to a Sept. 29 memorandum reporting Republican committee members’ findings in an “investigation” of PP, the organization reported $1.3 billion in revenue for 2014, including $528 million from “government health services, grants, and reimbursements.” According to this memo, “salaries at Planned Parenthood are lucrative.” PP “reports that over 40 of its executives earned salaries of $200,000 or more over the years 2009 to 2013, that PP spent $5.1 million on travel in 2013 and $622,706 “on blowout parties in 20-12 and 2013, and that PP “transfer(s) millions to its lobbying arm each year.” And so on.

Chairman Chaffetz apparently interrogated Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards about her annual compensation – which she said is $520,000 – implying that there is something problematic about her making so much money. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking member of the committee (and a member of Congress whom I’ve long admired, I must confess), responded to Chaffetz’s grilling by saying that Ms. Richards’ compensation is in line, that she has done nothing illegal, that the Republican majority in Congress is out to interfere with women’s rights and also has done nothing to rein in corporate financial wrongdoing.

Rep. Cummings mentioned Citicorp, which “pled guilty to manipulating currency markets” and which paid its CEO $13 million last year (Citicorp net revenues in 2014 were $71.1 billion). He also mentioned JP Morgan, which paid its CEO $20 million last year. According to Forbes, JP Morgan reported a net income of nearly $21.8 million on revenues of $91.1 billion in 2014.

As CNN reported in 2014, “In November [2013], JPMorgan paid the Justice Department a record $13 billion to resolve allegations linked to the sale of risky mortgage securities during the housing bubble. That came on the heels of a $4.5 billion settlement with institutional investors who suffered losses on mortgage securities purchased from JP Morgan in the run-up to the financial crisis.”

Rep. Cummings also mentioned Lockheed Martin, which apparently has used taxpayer funds for lobbying. It paid its CEO $33 million last year, he said. Rep. Cummings wondered why Republicans in Congress had not taken action to block any of Lockheed Martin federal contracts. In 2014, Lockheed Martin was the U.S. government’s top contractor, taking in $32.2 billion in federal funding.

But let’s get back to nonprofits.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Its 2013-14 annual report, most recent audited financial statement, and most recent IRS Form 990 can be found here. (I haven’t checked to see if the numbers in the Chaffetz memo agree with the numbers in the Form 990.)

I have no idea what a reasonable metric is for assessing the fairness of executive compensation is (I’m not an executive, and I’m certainly not compensated like one), so I’m just going to report executive compensation and revenues for a few space-related nonprofits – all 501(c)(3)s, none headed by women – for comparison. I’ve obtained all this information from the organizations’ IRS Form 990s for 2013, unless otherwise indicated – all the 990s are available at

Challenger Center for Space Science Education:

  • Revenue, $2.6 million (including $1 million in government grants); expenses, $2.7 million; net assets, minus $39,236.
  • “Compensation of current officers, directors, trustees, and key employees,” $429,112; “other salaries and wages,” $908,402.
  • Compensation for president and CEO Lance Bush, $245,400.

U.S. Space Foundation (2014):

  • Revenue, $7 million; expenses, $7.9 million; net assets, $6.4 million.
  • “Compensation of current officers, directors, trustees, and key employees” plus “other salaries and wages,” $3.2 million.
  • Compensation for CEO Eliot Pulham, $275,312; for CFO Holly Roberts, $246,808.
  • Luncheons and banquets, $534,546; exhibits, $376,512; “audiovisual,” $255,073; speakers, $12,202.

X Prize Foundation:

  • Revenue, $22.3 million; expenses, $24 million; net assets, $41.5 million.
  • “Compensation of current officers, directors, trustees, and key employees” plus “other salaries and wages,” $10.1 million.
  • Compensation for CEO Peter Diamandis, $402,390; for president and vice chair Robert Weiss, $492,223.
  • Expenses included $2.5 million for advertising and promotion, $1.2 million for travel, and $2.4 million for “special events.”

I’ve reported on the B612 Foundation’s finances in a previous post.

According to the Congressional Research Service, compensation for a member of Congress is $174,000 (with a few exceptions for leadership positions).

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Chairman Chaffetz ranked first in the House of Representatives for net worth – his was $788,507 in 2012.

Dear readers, you may make what you will of all of these numbers and claims.

Our worlds of words

I’ve come across a terrific infographic on, posted by Nathaniel A. Rivers (Thinker/Thought, 2015), and I figured that a blog post would be a good way to share it.

Here’s the link to the graphic: thinker_thought_burke_definition

The infographic distills some of the thinking of the late Kenneth Burke, America’s most famous rhetorical critic (and my favorite as well). I turn to Burke’s writings often (as I’ve done just now) in the course of my exploration of the rhetoric of human space flight.

Rhetoric, in Burke’s view, is “an essential function of language…the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to

symbols” (A Rhetoric of Motives, 1969). For Burke, the symbolic action of communication is the way that people make meaning, the means of creating and maintaining subjective social reality, “the dancing of an attitude” toward that reality (The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 1973). For traditional rhetorical scholars, the goal of rhetoric is persuasion. For Burke, the goal of rhetoric is identification. Burke advocated against rhetorical frames of rejection – for example, debunking or polemic, so popular in public discourse these days – and advocated for rhetorical frames of acceptance, ways of finding common ground. “Identification is compensatory to division,” according to Burke.

Burke was, of course, great with words – take “rotten with perfection,” for example called out in the infographic. My favorite Burkeanism is “war is a disease of peace” (or, war is a perversion of peace; or, war is a disease of cooperation).

I am guided by this advice from Burke: “A critic eager to define [her] position should explain…what to look for, and why; [and] how, and when and where” (Philosophy of Literary Form). What I look for is rhetorical evidence of ideological inclinations – an engagement with, or the embrace of, particular belief systems. Beliefs generate motives, words represent motives, and motives drive acts. I take this approach because ideological inclinations are so often unacknowledged, sometimes even denied.

Billionaire dreams of space, continued


SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, promoting SpaceX. Credit: Business Insider.

This morning, on Marketwatch, Marek Fuchs offered some interesting thoughts on the billionaire quest for human space flight and the colonization of Mars.

For those who don’t follow the business press, Marketwatch, “published by Dow Jones & Co…. with more than 16 million visitors per month…is part of The Wall Street Digital Network, which includes,,, and” This is an outlet I’d certainly categorize as mainstream media.

Fuchs is a former stockbroker and business journalist turned journalism professor.

On Marketwatch, Fuchs observes, “Looking at the overwrought media coverage of the billionaire space cadets, you can’t help but think that a kick-it-to-the-limit, faith-driven ethos has overtaken our economy.” He is of course referring to the so-called “commercial” space developers Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk.

Overwrought, indeed – coverage sometimes verges on religious fervor….

According to Forbes magazine, Jeff Bezos’s net worth is $46.7 billion. With a B. Branson’s net worth: $5.1 billion. Musk’s net worth: $13 billion.

For comparison, according to the World Bank, the PPP GNI (gross national income converted to international dollars using purchasing power parity rates) of Cambodia in 2014 was $47.5 billion; Guyana, $5.6 billion; and Iceland, $13.9 billion.

Fuchs argues that we need billionaires to invest in less glamorous but more practical enterprises – he notes that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates “are buying up railroads like a pair of latter-day Vanderbilts.”

(Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a bunch of billionaires decided to build a national high-speed railway system that could get people and their cars and goods and their trucks off the highways – at an affordable price? I can dream, can’t I?)

(And now I’m just making stuff up – but what about if the billionaires put up just $1 billion to subsidize Syrian refugee families for a year? At $50,000 per family – a wild guess – that would cover 20,000 families.)

“I suppose every healthy society — and economy — needs those with dreams fevered enough to challenge our assumptions, as well as incrementalists who focus on patching and dabbing at troubles,” Fuchs says. “The problem here comes in the balance…. In an era of zero interest rates, in which the major government initiative to improve the economy is to heedlessly print money, do we really need our highest-profile business leaders frittering away their time playing rockets instead of trains?”

I would say no.

And yet I have no doubt that the media, and government officials, too (see photo above), will continue to fawn over these businessmen and talk up their dreams of living on Mars.

See: Meghan Daum’s profile of Musk in Vogue magazine, photo by Annie Leibovitz. (Geeze.)

Also see this item from Reuters about Brevard County’s provision of $40 million in incentives, including an $8 million grant, to Bezos’s company Blue Origins. Bezos announced September 15 that Blue Origins plans to build a rocket plant in Brevard.

And check out this interesting piece by Noah Smith, a professor of finance at Stony Brook University and contributor to Bloomberg View that pokes some holes in the “great man” myth about Musk. “Entrepreneurs and institutions are highly complementary,” Smith writes. SpaceX would not exist without Musk, nor would it exist as it is today without outright government support and a heritage of government-funded technology to build on.

A Richard Dawkins slap-down



Johns Hopkins University science historian Nathaniel Comfort has written a brilliant review of Richard Dawkins’s new book, A Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science (Nature 525, 10 September 2015).

(Comfort happens to be the 2015-16 Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress. My work is funded in part by NASA’s astrobiology program.)

I haven’t read Brief Candle – so how I can I say the review is brilliant? I say this because Comfort offers a cogent critique of Dawkins’s abrasive rhetorical style and “fiercely reductionist, materialistic world view.” I’ve read a lot of Dawkins’s short works, and his book The Selfish Gene is sitting on my book shelf. I have to confess that I chose not to finish that book and am not inclined to read his others because his way of thinking and writing (Comfort calls his prose style “swaggering”) turns me off. It’s exclusionary and judgmental.

Think about the so-called Brights movement that Dawkins and other vocal atheists signed up to – a great example of how to offend scads of people in a few easy steps. Dawkins wrote in 2003 that the Bright movement “is intended to come to the aid of another beleaguered community in the US: those who, in the most religiose country in the Western world, have no religion, who are variously labeled atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, philosophical naturalists, secularists, or humanists.”

FYI, I identify as a humanist. I don’t believe in a supernatural being. I go to church (Unitarian Universalist). I do not perceive myself to be in conflict with people – among them most of my family and friends – who believe in a supernatural being.

Here are comments on Dawkins’s new book from Publishers Weekly:

“Dawkins tells a good tale as he expounds upon the value in broadly promoting science literacy. In his last full chapter, which takes up a full third of the book, he revisits the scientific ideas for which he is best known in professional, if not popular, circles. Not surprisingly, Dawkins lives up to his reputation as one who attacks his opponents mercilessly, whether the attacks are warranted or not. He once again targets the Templeton Foundation, with its mission to reconcile science and religion….”

And from Kirkus Reviews:

The Selfish Gene and his spirited defense of atheism, The God Delusion (2006), are his most controversial works, and many readers will welcome his belated attempts [in his new book] to heed criticisms of his unnecessarily abrasive style when debating religious opponents.”

Here’s what Comfort has to say about Dawkins and his latest book.

“Dawkins’s greatest gift has been as a lyricist. With terms such as selfish genes, memes and the extended phenotype, he has provided much of the vocabulary of modern evolutionary biology. He has published a sackful of books laying out the evidence for evolution, against design in nature, and for natural selection as the only mechanism of adaptive evolution. A skilled and popular lecturer, he also discovered a taste for the camera, hosting numerous television documentaries.”

However, over the past 10 years or so, Comfort observes, Dawkins has evolved “from popularizer into evangelist. His 2006 book The God Delusion (Bantam) was an ecclesiophobic diatribe, published around the same time as…similar books by Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. The gospels of…Daniel, Sam and Richard form the scripture of the ‘new atheism’, a fundamentalist sect that has mounted a scientistic crusade against all religion…. For a time, Dawkins was a rebellious scientific rock star. Now, his critique of religion seems cranky….”

Cranky, indeed.

On September 10, the day on which Comfort’s review was published, Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) tweeted, “Jerry Coyne (@EvolutionIsTrue) brilliantly replies to Nathaniel Comfort’s Nature review….”

In a blog post titled, “A snarky review of Dawkins’s new autobiography,” Jerry A. Coyne writes, “To be fair, the review is a mixed one, with Comfort lauding Dawkins’s past books popularizing evolution, and praising Dawkins’s “lyrical” and “sparkling” prose. But he simply can’t help himself when it comes to the atheism bit.”

Coyne, a professor of biology at the University of Chicago, appears to be a member of Dawkins’s atheist-scientist camp. Coyne is the author of Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible (2015). On Coyne’s web site, Dawkins and fellow atheists Sam Harris and Steven Pinker offer praises for Faith vs. Fact. Dawkins: “it’s hard to see how any reasonable person can resist the conclusions of his superbly argued book.” Harris: “Coyne has written a wonderful primer on what it means to think scientifically, showing that the honest doubts of science are better — and more noble — than the false certainties of religion.” Pinker: “some propositions are flat wrong. In this timely and important book, Jerry Coyne expertly exposes the incoherence of the increasingly popular belief that you can have it both ways: that God (or something God-ish, God-like, or God-oid) sort-of exists; that miracles kind-of happen; and that the truthiness of dogma is somewhat-a-little-bit-more-or-less-who’s-to-say-it-isn’t like the truths of science and reason.”

Talk about snarky.

Pinker, and fellow atheists and media talking-heads Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer have written promotional blurbs for Dawkins’s new book. Pinker: “Readers…are in for many treats: lively prose from one of our greatest living writers; stimulating ideas on the nature of life and the human condition; and the opportunity to eavesdrop on the workings of an extraordinary mind, intellectually fierce yet personally generous.” Shermer: “may do more to elevate atheism to a legitimate position than any that came before.”

You have to hand it to the likes of Dawkins, Pinker, and Harris: they’re almost as good at promoting their brand –now known as “the new atheism”– as NASA is at promoting its brand. And the media keep eating it up – both brands.

Speaking of which, is anybody paying attention to NASA’s massive publicity campaign for the Hollywood movie “The Martian”? For starters, check out these videos and this Web page. NASA brought “The Martian” star Matt Damon to JPL recently to talk about the movie. NASA’s staging a screening of the movie at Johnson Space Center. NASA officials traveled to the Toronto Film Festival last week to talk up the movie. Tune in to NASA TV tomorrow, September 17, at 2 pm ET for more about “The Martian,” live from NASA headquarters.


Mars frenzy comes to Washington



In its current embrace of space advocacy groups that tend toward zealotry and propagate the rhetoric of frontier conquest and exploitation, NASA appears to be taking full advantage of the Mars Society’s 2015 conference, which starts tomorrow in Washington, D.C., to tout agency programs and plans.

The Mars Society is an advocacy group for the human exploration and settlement of Mars. Its founding declaration, adopted in 1998, offers reasons why “we must go” to Mars – such as:

  • For the challenge. Civilizations, like people, thrive on challenge and decay without it. The time is past for human societies to use war as a driving stress for technological progress. As the world moves towards unity, we must join together, not in mutual passivity, but in common enterprise, facing outward to embrace a greater and nobler challenge than that which we previously posed to each other. Pioneering Mars will provide such a challenge.”
  • For the opportunity. The settling of the Martian New World is an opportunity for a noble experiment in which humanity has another chance to shed old baggage and begin the world anew; carrying forward as much of the best of our heritage as possible and leaving the worst behind. Such chances do not come often, and are not to be disdained lightly.”
  • For the future. Mars is not just a scientific curiosity; it is a world with a surface area equal to all the continents of Earth combined, possessing all the elements that are needed to support not only life, but technological society. It is a New World, filled with history waiting to be made by a new and youthful branch of human civilization that is waiting to be born. We must go to Mars to make that potential a reality. We must go, not for us, but for a people who are yet to be. We must do it for the Martians.”

(Talk about an ideology…. I’ve written about this belief system before – most recently in the August issue of Scientific American. Also see my blog post of July 27.)

You can find the Mars Society’s 2015 conference agenda here. Speakers from NASA include Jim Green, head of the Planetary Science Division at NASA headquarters; Jim Watzin, head of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters; Deborah Bass (JPL), Pan Conrad (NASA Goddard), John Guidi (HQ), Jen Heldmann, (NASA Ames), Jen Stern (NASA Goddard), Carol Stoker (NASA Ames), Geronimo Villanueva (NASA Goddard), and Niki Werkheiser (HQ). You can find these people’s biographies here.

Others on the agenda include “manned” space exploration advocate Art Harman, hard-core libertarian Ed Hudgins, Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp, Gil Levin, ex-Apollo astronaut Jack Schmitt, The Martian author Andy Weir (via Skype), and Google’s chief Internet evangelist Vint Cerf.

Harman is founder and director of the Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration. Harman seems to be “the coalition” as well, as no other staff or members are listed on the coalition’s web site. Harman founded his coalition in 2010. Before that, he was legislative director and space advisor for Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX-36), who represented NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

According to the coalition’s web site, it (he?) “advocates an ‘in this decade’ approach like that by which President Kennedy challenged America to go to the moon and to become the absolute leader in high technology for a generation. America can begin to establish a manned research base on the moon within a decade; so we can learn how to live on Mars and develop new technologies to benefit all humanity…. The benefits of such missions will in addition to providing a positive national purpose; bring greater prosperity, innovations, high tech jobs, and investments to Americans…. Mr. Harman believes Americans can solve any problem and reach the furthest frontiers thanks to our history and culture of freedom. Space exploration truly is ‘American Exceptionalism’ defined.”

Ed Hudgins is director of advocacy for the Atlas Society, former director of regulatory studies for the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank), former director of the Center for International Economic Growth at the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank), and former senior economist for the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress. (I used to talk with Ed in the ‘80s, when I was editor of Space Business News and he was at the Heritage Foundation.)

The Atlas Society promotes “open Objectivism,” Ayn Rand’s “philosophy of reason, achievement, individualism, and freedom.” The Mars Society reports that Hudgins will address its 2015 conference “on how growing human freedoms are leading humankind towards an unlimited future in space.”

Lansdorp’s Mars One wants to send a group of colonists on a one-way trip to Mars. Gil Levin flew a life-detection experiment on NASA’s Viking mission to Mars. The scientific consensus was (and still is) that it did not detect evidence of life. Levin says it did. Jack Schmitt is an advocate of building a base on the Moon and mining the lunar surface for helium-3. (He’s also been a vocal climate-change skeptic.) Andy Weir – he’s famous, his book is famous, the Hollywood movie version is coming out later this year, and NASA will be newsjacking that event for all it’s worth. Vint Cerf – I met the man once and we had a nice chat. I don’t know why he’s on the line-up – Silicon Valley is a hotbed of space development and colonization enthusiasts, maybe he’s one of them?

Members of the Mars Society’s board of directors are founder Bob Zubrin, founder Bishop James Heiser, and attorney Declan O’Donnell.

If you are not familiar with Zubrin’s views about the human development and colonization of space, you can read his papers here – for instance, “The significance of the Martian frontier” (1995), or “Mars: America’s new frontier (1995).

According to the Mars Society, Bishop Heiser “was ordained into the ministry in 1996 and has served in central Texas since 1998.  In 2006 he was called to serve in his current capacity as Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America.  Bishop Heiser’s other responsibilities include holding the office of President of the Center for the Study of Lutheran Orthodoxy and Dean of Missions of The Augustana Ministerium.” As I wrote in an August 2013 blog post, Heiser is listed as a “speaker” on the web site of the John Birch Society, whose mission is “To bring about less government, more responsibility, and — with God’s help — a better world by providing leadership, education, and organized volunteer action in accordance with moral and Constitutional principles,” by “preserving individual rights & national, independence” and “restoring the Constitution.”

Repristination Press of Bynum, Texas, has published two books by Heiser: A Shining City on a Higher Hill: Christianity and the Next New World (2012) and Virtue and the Settlement of the New World (2010). The Mars Society has published a book of Heiser’s essays, “Civilization and the New Frontier” (2010), which were presented to the conventions of the Society in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010.

At this year’s Mars Society conference, Heiser will be speaking about “the myth of Mars and humanity’s vision of the cosmos.”

O’Donnell is, according to the Mars Society, “a trial attorney in the Denver metropolitan area with a national constituency in the areas of tax and securities litigation and a growing practice base in space law.” According to the Colorado Supreme Court, O’Donnell was censured by the Court in 1998 for a number of shady business dealings: “the complainant and the respondent in this lawyer discipline case submitted a thirty-two page stipulation, agreement, and conditional admission of misconduct…. An inquiry panel of the supreme court grievance committee approved the conditional admission, and recommended a public censure. We accept the conditional admission and publicly censure the respondent.” You can read the details here.

As a taxyaper, citizen, and space policy analyst, I continue to be baffled by the current administration’s fondness for the “space libertarian” crowd. Is it evidence of what neoliberals call the “triumph of neoliberalism” – free trade, downsized government, lower taxes, privatization? It’s time to take a critical look at U.S. space policy and practice.


Science information or corporate PR?



Thanks to science writer Faye Flam for her July 27 blog post on about an off-point article about scientific literacy.

The story, “Quiz: can you answer 5th-grade science questions? Most Americans lack a basic understanding of science,” was authored by Alexandra Sifferlin and dated September 18, 2014, on (I don’t know if it ever appeared in Time magazine, as I don’t read it, for reasons that should be obvious by the time you get to the end of this post.)

The sole source of information identified in this story was Joseph Perrone, chief scientist for the Center for Accountability in Science (CAS), and a survey conducted by his outfit.

CAS is a project of the Center for Organizational Research and Education (CORE), which describes itself as “a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to research and education about a wide variety of activist groups, exposing their funding, agendas, and tactics.” CORE used to operate as the Center for Consumer Freedom, “a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices.” CORE’s web site identifies only one staff member by name – CAS’s chief scientist Perrone. It offers a street address, telephone number, and a “contact us” email address ( That’s it. Oh, and an opportunity to “donate,” if you like.

One of CORE’s “tactics” is to “expose” so-called activist groups by posting their IRS annual reports on its web site. (These reports are public documents and available elsewhere). Neither CORE nor CAS posts its IRS reports. Many of the organizations it’s “exposing” do. CORE’s IRS reports are available elsewhere – for instance, on

CORE is a project of the D.C. PR firm Richard Berman and Company. CORE and Berman’s firm share the same address. Berman’s web site does not name clients. Form 990s do not name specific sources of contributions, only total contributions for the year. I have not been able to find any information on CORE’s contributors or Berman’s clients, but based on what I’ve learned today I can only assume they’re corporations.

Here are a few of CORE’s projects:

  • The Environmental Policy Alliance (EPA – haha, get the joke?) “is devoted to uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups and exploring the intersection between activists and government agencies.”
  • Big Green Radicals “is a project of the Environmental Policy Alliance (EPA), which exists to educate the public about the real agenda of well-funded environmental activist groups. The EPA receives support from individuals, businesses, and foundations.”
  • EPA Facts “is a project of the Environmental Policy Alliance dedicated to highlighting the high cost of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory actions and peeling back the layers of secrecy surrounding the agency’s actions.”
  • Humane Watch: “The dog-watchers at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) need their own watchdog too. HSUS now has an annual budget around the size of an NFL payroll. It has become too big and too unaccountable. Someone has to pay closer attention.”
    • I wondered who was behind Humane Watch when I saw its in-your-face HSUS attack ads plastered all over the walls and floors of D.C.’s Metro stations a few months ago. Now I know. Figures.)
  • PETA Kills Animals “exposes the deadly hypocrisy of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which kills up to 97% of the cats and dogs at its “animal shelter” every year.”
  • Prop 65 Scam: “In 1986, environmental and public health activists convinced California voters to approve the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act — better known as Proposition 65. Prop 65 Scam exposes the law’s many flaws that have imposed massive burdens on businesses without appreciably improving Californians’ health.”

CORE’s web site also “outs” a long list of “activists” such as Pamela Anderson (“She has posed topless for PETA advertisements”), Alec Baldwin (“Celebrity Spokesperson, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and Farm Sanctuary; Fundraiser, Performing Animal Welfare Society”), Candace Bergen (“Celebrity endorser, Humane Society of the United States”), Jane Goodall, Stephen King, Bill Maher, John Mellencamp, Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, and Betty White.

Wow, what a bunch of scary people….

Berman and Company says it “specializes in research, communications, and creative advertising.”

That phrase “creative advertising” sent a bit of a shiver up my spine…. And then I spotted an even more chilling statement on the company’s web site: “Using innovative messages, dynamic websites and creative outreach tactics, we successfully change the debate in broadcast, print, and online media. Our work has been featured on NBC’s Today show and Nightly News, the CBS Evening News, ABC’s World News Tonight, 20/20 and Good Morning America, on countless cable news and talk radio programs, and in every major American newspaper and news magazine. Berman and Company also places over 300 op-eds per year on behalf of clients.”

Consumer protection vs. corporate protection, consumer information vs. consumer snow jobs, citizens vs. Big Business, it’s been going on for decades. Online and social media make it easier than ever for “activist” groups, corporations, and PR firms to reach huge audiences.

My concern is that the media – mass media, online media, social media – are using an undoubtedly corporate-backed PR firm as a source of information for “the news.”

I make my living as a communication researcher, and my work involves a lot of media monitoring and analysis. Most people aren’t like me. Most people will read Time or watch the CBS Evening News and assume that producers, reporters, and editors have properly identified their sources. Time should have, at least, indicated who/what Perrone and CAS are.

Let “consumers” (I prefer “citizens”) consider their sources – and to consider their sources, they need to know who exactly they are – and decide who they want to believe. Though I hope I may be wrong, I suspect that most media using CORE and CAS as sources do not bother to explain that these groups are operated by a PR firm (that does not reveal its sources of funding).

If you’re interested in media education – for yourself, your family or your friends (and especially your children), see the excellent work of the Media Education Foundation.


Probabilistic assessments of asteroid impact risks: problematic



At the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress’s recent “ScholarFest” event, a person in the audience asked astrobiologist David Grinspoon if Earth was due for an extinction-scale asteroid impact. Grinspoon replied that impacts are non-probabalistic events. Just because an extinction-scale impact event hasn’t happened lately doesn’t mean that one will happen soon.

Grinspoon is right on. Yet the community of scientists who work on finding, tracking, and characterizing near-Earth asteroids and identifying those that might pose a risk of impacting with Earth remain deeply wedded to their mathematical methods of calculating impact risks, which – not necessarily intentionally – can convey an impression of regularity where none is proven.

This commitment to probabilistic risk assessment was evident at the so-called “first international workshop on potentially hazardous asteroid assessment,” held July 7-9 at NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC). The workshop was organized by a new ARC research group, supported by NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations Program (one of two NASA science programs that funds my work), that is studying the physics of asteroid impacts with Earth. A video recording of the workshop is archived here. This was a workshop for expert-to-expert communication. My commentary here is not intended as a critique of participants’ abilities to communicate across the expert-non-expert boundary. I’m simply raising some points that you all can “talk among yourselves” about.

The purpose of the workshop was to advance understanding of potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) through modeling of their atmospheric entry/breakup, risk assessments of surface impact (land and tsunami), and characterization of pre-entry properties, toward “developing reliable predictive and assessment tools enabling decision makers to take appropriate mitigation action in the event of pending PHA strike.”

Workshop participants were asked to address these questions: What are the likely physical characteristics for different classes of potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) and how can they be measured? What is the dependence of surface damage on PHA size and impact trajectory? What is the range of damage effects and potential for casualties from impacts (both land and tsunami)?

ARC’s David Morrison said characterizing asteroid impact risks in terms of human deaths per year is “a good way to communicate with decision makers.” (I disagree.) He also said “it is prudent to assess the nature of the threat” by means of statistical analyses. (It may be prudent to do so among experts, but such assessments are not necessarily meaningful to non-experts – such as decision makers.)

Elizabeth Pate-Cornell, Jason Reinhardt, and Matthew Daniel of Stanford University’s Engineering Risk Research Group presented interesting material at the workshop that, in my humble opinion, is strictly for discussion among fellow experts. When Steinhardt started talking about such things as “backcasting” and “recency bias,” he lost me.

Steinhardt said risk=probability + consequences. Risk communication expert Peter Sandman says risk=hazard + outrage. Steinhardt’s conception of risk is mathematical. Sandman’s is psycho-social. Steinhardt said, “We can quantify asteroid risk.” (I’m not convinced. Well, I can accept that perhaps statisticians can quantify this risk to their own satisfaction. But I don’t believe such quantifications will be widely meaningful to people who don’t live by the numbers.) Matthew Daniel commented, “uncertainty quantification can be hard to interpret.” (Amen.)

I’m not criticizing the work of this group, which is top-notch.* I am commenting on the value of probabilistic risk assessment in communicating with decision makers about “actionable” risks.

After hearing presentations on an array of approaches to modeling asteroid entry and breakup, Peter Brown of Western University (Toronto) said experts now need to compare and validate these various models. Mark Boslough of Sandia National Laboratory said he’s skeptical that any amount of data on fragmentation generated by computer models will enable accurate predictions of how actual impacting objects will break up (presumably because every impact is unique?).

My colleague Leviticus Lewis of the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent a message to workshop participants when he said, “There will be no formulas in my presentation.” (Most people got the message, I think, based on questions and comments afterward.) He explained how the U.S. national incident management system works, and he explained what disaster planners and emergency responders will need to know about predicted impacts. (Al Harris later commented that Lewis had “told scientists what they need to know.”)

When the experts, and the media, talk about asteroid impact risks, they tend to speculate about “what if” an impact occurs over New York, or Los Angeles, or maybe Paris (in the U.S., at least, they don’t tend to speculate about the world’s most populous cities, such as Delhi, Mexico City, or Sao Paulo….). Somebody at the workshop wondered, “What if something explodes over the Vatican?” I often wonder why – if asteroid impacts with Earth are randomly distributed (see the bolide-impact map released last year) – the experts tend to focus on big cities when most of the world’s surface is covered by water or unpopulated/sparsely populated land. Maybe it’s due to concerns about injuries and fatalities? Then again, I’m not a mathematician, so maybe I’m missing something.

I’m not convinced of the existence of widespread public concern over when the next catastrophic asteroid impact with Earth will occur. I am convinced of the media’s attention to this subject. Impending doom is a popular topic, in fiction and nonfiction media. (If you want to worry about impending doom, read Kathryn Schultz’s story, “The really big one,” in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker. It’s not about asteroid impacts.)

As I told a reporter recently, I don’t worry about the next asteroid impact with Earth. I worry about my neighbor’s tilting hemlock tree falling on my house during the next derecho.

* See Jason C. Steinhardt, Matthew Daniel, and M. Elizabeth Pate-Cornell, “Probabilistic Analysis of Asteroid Impact Risk Mitigation Programs,” Probabilistic Safety Assessment and Management (PSAM) 12, June 2014, Honolulu, Hawaii.


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