Eduardo Bruera, palliative care expert: ‘Suffering can always be relieved, but not eliminated’

The Argentine oncologist, head of the Department of Palliative, Rehabilitation and Integrative Medicine at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, denounces the lack of investment in end-of-life care and the overtreatment of some terminal patients

Eduardo Bruera, oncologist and head of the Department of Palliative, Rehabilitation and Integrative Medicine of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Eduardo Bruera, oncologist and head of the Department of Palliative, Rehabilitation and Integrative Medicine of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI

When you’re on your deathbed, you just want to be with your family and not suffer. Not much more than that, reflects oncologist and expert in palliative care Eduardo Bruera. He knows what he is talking about: in 1999, this Argentinean doctor launched the Department of Palliative, Rehabilitation and Integrative Medicine of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the largest in the United States, and has been there, at countless bedsides, witnessing too many ends. “What I see is what is important to them. And they say that it is being close to their loved ones, not being a burden to them, being free from suffering and also, in most cases, rekindling their spiritual relationship,” explains the oncologist, who was recently in Barcelona to be awarded an honorary doctorate from the International University of Catalonia.

Bruera speaks out against the lack of investment in palliative care and the weight of the taboo that still surrounds death. “Death will come to all of us,” emphasizes the specialist, who urges people to stop looking the other way and improve the end-of-life care.

Question. Is not enough attention paid to palliative care?

Answer. Unfortunately, too little attention is paid to what needs it the most. And that’s in the big hospitals, the medical schools, the places where they make decisions that will have long-term effects on how patients are treated. The existing paradigm right now is based on the diseases, not the patients, and money goes to that. All hospitals have an intensive care unit and very few have a palliative care unit, which doesn’t make much sense because people die in all those hospitals.

Q. Universities teach how to cure patients. If the patient dies, is it taken as a failure, therefore turning the matter into a taboo?

A. I totally agree. If I focus on the fact that my success is linked to curing the sick, I take the fact that they are not cured as a personal and professional failure, I turn away from that battle – because I lost it – and I run out looking for a new one. It’s ironic because every one of us is going to die and it doesn’t make sense to look for a cure for something and forget that the cured person is also going to die. Death will come to all of us.

Q. But nobody wants to talk about death.

A. They don’t, and medicine doesn’t want to invest in making that end of life less painful, either. Undoubtedly, when we reach the end of our lives it will be a very difficult time, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s more difficult because we don’t have the structures and processes to ease that unnecessary suffering.

Q. Why doesn’t medicine want to invest in that?

A. I think it’s a cultural matter. Since the development of antibiotic therapy, medicine became a little more ambitious in changing the natural history of diseases, and it set its sights on that: healing, extending life. And we kind of forget that, in the end, we are all going to die. This cultural change brought about by vaccines and antibiotics made us abandon something that used to make us credible, which was human treatment, the relationship we establish with the patient and the family, the way in which we were able to soothe and comfort when we had fewer means of treatment. What we try to do in palliative care is reintroduce that; not replace the curative intent.

Q. If there is such a rejection and denial of death in society, how is it possible to make a change in the medical field?

A. Changes must be made by accepting, acknowledging and integrating palliative care units, where people who are suffering a lot are relieved of their physical, personal, spiritual and familial suffering, and then die. There is a lot that can be done to reduce suffering, but if we don’t have a clinical model, if there is nothing to show, the taboo will persist and we will continue to turn our backs on death.

Q. What can be done at this stage of life?

A. When I recognize that I have a disease that is not curable, without exception I will experience moral suffering, anxiety, uncertainty, sadness, sometimes anger, other times denial. And that’s part of being alive. We cannot be alive and not suffer. It makes no sense to think that one can avoid that, but if my hospital, my doctor, turn their back on me, I am excessively sad and defeated, there is no help for me, that suffering is aggravated. It makes no sense to think that this stage of my life will be free of suffering, but it does make sense to think that a lot of that suffering can be relieved for me and my loved ones.

Q. How?

A. With structures and processes. I would like to tell a politician that they do not have to invest or create new jobs, but I would also like to tell them that it is an extraordinary investment, and here’s why: at that moment, when a patient with cancer or heart failure goes to see their doctor, they will be told: “Well, you are not responding well to the treatment, let’s give it another month.” And that other month of immunotherapy is tremendously expensive. Laboratory studies and radiology are very expensive and, in general, they are not very useful, but that is the resource that this doctor has to give them hope – and it only takes 10 minutes of their time. A discussion about the disease not responding well could take an hour and a half and put the patient in a situation that the doctor can’t handle, because they are not trained for that, and then what happens? That a huge amount of money is spent, and it is not very useful. Imagine a situation in which the oncologist tells the patient: “Look, I don’t know if there is a treatment, but there is Dr Bruera, who is here with me and who will be a big help.” I see that patient, I spend time with them and they don’t get an expensive treatment; they get me. There is a human hope, because the suffering of the patient and the family is relieved, but there is also an economic hope.

Q. Are there too many useless therapies being given at the end?

A. Yes. And they are given with good intentions, because it is what the doctor can do. But they don’t help much. And they cost a lot and can be toxic. But it is what they can offer.

Q. Is the machine pushed as far as possible to avoid accepting that no more can be done?

A. Because I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to say it or how to handle it and I don’t have anyone, I don’t have a palliative structure by my side to help me. I am alone, as an oncologist, as a cardiologist, as an internist. I am alone in front of the patient with the knowledge that I have. And I do the best I can do. There are no good and bad guys in this movie. The problem is the movie itself.

Doctor Eduardo Bruera in the gardens of the International University of Catalonia, in Barcelona, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate.
Doctor Eduardo Bruera in the gardens of the International University of Catalonia, in Barcelona, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate.MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI

Q. What is the current state of palliative care?

A. We know we can do more. We know much more, but we don’t reach patients as we should because we lack the structure. We have incontrovertible evidence that palliative care vastly improves quality of life compared to conventional treatment, but we haven’t gotten the investments that can make it reach the patients. I feel very optimistic that we are evolving, but it saddens me that so many patients who are going to die this year will not have access to it because we still don’t have the intention to establish the structures.

Q. You said a lot has been learned; what else is there to know?

A. What you and I fear the most when we are diagnosed with cancer is pain. Pain is a threat that may be worse than death. If you come with cancer today, I can give you a treatment that is probably no more than two or three years old, because there is a development, an investment, and there are many treatments. If what you have is pain, I will give you a treatment that is 230 years old, which is morphine, which is still the number one treatment. How can it be that the same person to whom one gives a new treatment for a tumor, when they are suffering from pain they get a treatment that is 230 years old, that is not safe, that can cause addiction, that has side effects? We need to do more research on how to treat pain with more modern and evolved methods. There are also not proper studies on how to talk to patients. There are many holes in our knowledge of suffering.

Q. Can suffering always be relieved?

A. Suffering can always be relieved. But, can suffering be eliminated? I would say unfortunately no. But I can comfort the patient, the family, stay by their side and be with them. That has a great relieving effect. Transforming it into something that can be completely eliminated, I think it would not be humanly possible, but it can be greatly relieved.

Q. Can euthanasia coexist with palliative care?

A. Yes, absolutely. When [most people] are sick, they don’t want to die; what they want is not to suffer. There might be a minority who wants to – those who may want to, and until the day they do, they will probably benefit from palliative care.

El Pais in English – May 29, 2023

Two-Thirds of Kids Struggle to Read, and We Know How to Fix It

Two young children looking up from behind an open book. One child has short brown hair, and the other has blond hair.
Credit…Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post, via Getty Images

By Nicholas Kristof

Opinion Columnist

A lovely aphorism holds that education isn’t the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.

But too often, neither are pails filled nor fires lit.

One of the most bearish statistics for the future of the United States is this: Two-thirds of fourth graders in the United States are not proficient in reading.

Reading may be the most important skill we can give children. It’s the pilot light of that fire.

Yet we fail to ignite that pilot light, so today some one in five adults in the United States struggles with basic literacy, and after more than 25 years of campaigns and fads, American children are still struggling to read. Eighth graders today are actually a hair worse at reading than their counterparts were in 1998.

One explanation gaining ground is that, with the best of intentions, we grown-ups have bungled the task of teaching kids to read. There is growing evidence from neuroscience and careful experiments that the United States has adopted reading strategies that just don’t work very well and that we haven’t relied enough on a simple starting point — helping kids learn to sound out words with phonics.

“Too much reading instruction is not based on what the evidence says,” noted Nancy Madden, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who is an expert on early literacy. “That’s pretty clear.

“At least half of kids in the U.S. are not getting effective reading instruction.”

Other experts agree. Ted Mitchell, an education veteran at nearly every level who is now president of the American Council on Education, thinks that easily a majority of children are getting subpar instruction.

Others disagree, of course. But an approach called the “science of reading” has gained ground, and it rests on a bed of phonics instruction.

(I’m focusing on national policy, but parents also play a role. It can be dangerous to listen to kids — you’ll be talked into buying a video game — so read to them! I’ve offered my suggestions for the best kids’ books ever — and truly one of the best reasons to have kids is the chance to read to them.)

I spent much of the 1980s and 1990s as a New York Times correspondent in East Asia, and children there (including mine) learned to read through phonics and phonetic alphabets: hiragana in Japan, bopomofo in Taiwan, pinyin in China and hangul in South Korea. Then I returned with my family to the United States in 1999, and I found that even reading was political: Republicans endorsed phonics, so I was expected as a good liberal to roll my eyes.

The early critique of phonics in part was rooted in social justice, trying to address inadequate education in inner cities by offering more engaging reading materials. The issue became more political when the 2000 Republican Party platform called for “an early start in phonics,” and when President George W. Bush embraced phonics with a major initiative called Reading First.

For liberals, Bush’s support for phonics made it suspect. That had some basis: The Reading First program was not well implemented, and careful evaluations showed it had little impact. It died.

I became intrigued by the failures in reading after listening to a riveting six-part podcast, “Sold a Story,” that argues passionately that the education establishment ignored empirical evidence and unintentionally harmed children.

“Kids are not being taught how to read because for decades teachers have been sold an idea about reading and how children learn to do it,” Emily Hanford, a public radio journalist who for years has focused on reading issues, says in the first of the podcasts. She told me that the podcast has had more than 3.5 million downloads.

One of the targets of the podcast is Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College who has a widely used reading curriculum. Calkins has acknowledged learning from the science of reading movement and from Hanford, and she told me how she has modified her curriculum as a result — but she also says that phonics was always part of her approach and that media narratives are oversimplified.

As Calkins and others revise their materials, skeptics worry that curriculums still aren’t fully committed to phonics but layer it onto other strategies, leaving students befuddled.

It’s easy to be glib in describing these reading wars. Everyone agrees that phonics are necessary, and everyone also agrees that phonics are not enough.

“Yes, phonics matters, but how you do phonics matters, too, and the rest of the stuff matters as well,” said Madden. She runs a nonprofit, Success for All, that is one of the most evidence-based organizations for improving reading, and rigorous evaluations have shown excellent results. (Success for All was one of the nonprofits in my 2022 holiday giving guide; huge thanks to my readers for donating more than $6 million to them.)

What’s clear is that when two-thirds of American kids are not proficient at reading, we’re failing the next generation. We can fix this, imperfectly, if we’re relentlessly empirical and focus on the evidence. It’s also noteworthy that lots of other interventions help and aren’t controversial: tutoring, access to books, and coaching parents on reading to children. And slashing child poverty, which child tax credits accomplished very successfully until they were cut back.


New York Times – February 11, 2023

The Politics of Delusion Have Taken Hold

A man whose head is not visible works on raising a gigantic American flag, of which only the red-and-white stripes are visible.
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

By Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.

There are very real — and substantial — policy differences separating the Democratic and Republican Parties. At the same time, what scholars variously describe as misperception and even delusion is driving up the intensity of contemporary partisan hostility.

Matthew Levendusky, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, describes some of these distorted views in his recently published book “Our Common Bonds: Using What Americans Share to Help Bridge the Partisan Divide”:

Seventy-five percent of Democrats said Republicans were closed-minded, and 55 percent of Republicans said that Democrats were immoral” (Pew Research Center, 2019). Nearly eight in 10 say that the two parties “fundamentally disagree” about core American values. More than 70 percent of all voters think those in the other party are “a clear and present danger to the American way of life.”

At an extreme level, James L. MartherusAndres G. MartinezPaul K. Piff and Alexander G. Theodoridis write in a July 2019 article, “Party Animals? Extreme Partisan Polarization and Dehumanization,” “a substantial proportion of partisans are willing to directly say that they view members of the opposing party as less evolved than supporters of their own party.”

In two surveys, the authors found that the mean score on what they call a “blatant difference measure” between Republicans and Democrats ranges from 31 to 36 points. The surveys asked respondents to rate members of each party on a 100-point “ascent of man” scale. Both Democrats and Republicans placed members of the opposition more than 30 points lower on the scale than members of their own party.

“As a point of comparison,” they write, “these gaps are more than twice the dehumanization differences found by Kteily et al. (2015) for Muslims, 14 points, and nearly four times the gap for Mexican immigrants, 7.9 points, when comparing these groups with evaluations of ‘average Americans.’”

A separate paper published last year, “Christian Nationalism and Political Violence: Victimhood, Racial Identity, Conspiracy and Support for the Capitol Attacks,” by Miles T. ArmalyDavid T. Buckley and Adam M. Enders shows that support for political violence correlates with a combination of white identity, belief in extreme religions and conspiracy thinking.

“Perceived victimhood, reinforcing racial and religious identities and support for conspiratorial information,” they write, “are positively related to each other and support for the Capitol riot.”

Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, noted in an email that “much research has shown that Americans’ views of the other party are in fact driven by misperceptions and falsehoods.” Bringing Republicans and Democrats together and revealing their commonalities, she continued, “only lessens affective polarization. It cannot eliminate it.”


“Because humans are innately good at finding patterns and establishing stereotypes,” Wronski wrote, citing research showing that just as “Democrats overestimate the percentage of wealthy Republicans, Republicans overestimate the number of L.G.B.T.+ Democrats.”

Since these beliefs have their foundations in core values, self-image and group identities, Wronski wrote, “people are motivated to defend them. Protecting your identity becomes more important than embracing the truth.”

In other words, misperceptions and delusions interact dangerously with core political and moral disagreements.

In March 2021, Michael Dimock, the president of the Pew Research Center, published “America Is Exceptional in Its Political Divide,” in which he explored some of this country’s vulnerabilities to extreme, emotionally driven polarization:

America’s relatively rigid, two-party electoral system stands apart by collapsing a wide range of legitimate social and political debates into a singular battle line that can make our differences appear even larger than they may actually be. And when the balance of support for these political parties is close enough for either to gain near-term electoral advantage — as it has in the U.S. for more than a quarter century — the competition becomes cutthroat, and politics begins to feel zero-sum, where one side’s gain is inherently the other’s loss.

At the same time, Dimock continued:

Various types of identities have become ‘stacked’ on top of people’s partisan identities. Race, religion and ideology now align with partisan identity in ways that they often didn’t in eras when the two parties were relatively heterogenous coalitions.

The result is that an individual whose party loses on Election Day can feel that his or her identity has suffered a defeat.

In separate analyses, Pew has demonstrated the scope of mutual misperception by Democrats and Republicans. In an August 2022 study, “As Partisan Hostility Grows, Signs of Frustration With the Two-Party System,” Pew found that majorities of both parties viewed the opposition as immoral, dishonest, closed-minded and unintelligent — judgments that grew even more adverse, by 13 to 28 points, from 2016 to 2022. In a June-July 2022 survey, Pew found that 78 percent of Republicans believed Democratic policies are “harmful to the country” and 68 percent of Democrats held a comparable view of Republican policies.

I asked Robb Willer, a sociologist at Stanford, about these developments, and he emailed back, “Americans misperceive the extent of policy disagreementantidemocratic attitudessupport for political violencedehumanization of rival partisans — again with the strongest results for perceptions of the views of rival partisans.”

Importantly, Willer continued, “misperceptions of political division are more than mere vapor. There is good reason to think that these misperceptions — or at least Democrats’ and Republicans’ misperceptions of their rivals — really matter.”


Democrats and Republicans don’t want to bring a knife to a gunfight; they greatly overestimate how much their rivals want to break norms of nonviolent, democratic engagement, and this leads Democrats and Republicans to support violent and undemocratic engagement more than they otherwise would.

He concluded:

As the old sociological adage goes, situations believed to be real can become real in their consequences. It is likely that Democrats’ and Republicans’ inaccurate, overly negative stereotypes of one another are to some extent self-fulfilling, leading partisans to adopt more divisive, conflictual views than they would if they saw each other more accurately.

Willer and others who described the centrality of misperception in American politics stressed that they do not want to diminish the serious divisions between Democrats and Republicans on such matters as abortion, race, women’s rights, the safety net and the proper role of government.

Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins and the author of “Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity,” stressed these points in an emailed response to my questions, saying, “Democrats and Republicans are having very real and consequential disagreements on matters of equality, social hierarchy and what it means to be American.”

At the same time, Mason continued,

Matters of status and identity are easy to whip up into existential conflicts with zero-sum solutions. To the extent that political leaders are encouraging people to focus on threats to their social status rather than their economic or material well-being, they are certainly directing attention in an unhelpful and often dangerous direction. It’s much easier to think of others as disproportionately dangerous and extreme when their victory means your loss, rather than focusing on the overall well-being of the nation as a whole.

Alia Braley, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, is the lead author of an August 2022 paper, “The Subversion Dilemma: Why Voters Who Cherish Democracy Participate in Democratic Backsliding.” She and her co-authors argued that “simply fearing that opposing partisans support democratic backsliding can lead individuals to support it themselves.”

In an email, Braley wrote:

We find that everyday Democrats believe that everyday Republicans are way more hostile to democracy than they really are. And vice versa. In that sense people are, in fact, operating under a delusion that everyday opposing partisans are willing to undermine democracy. And yes, this misperception seems to cause intense affective polarization.

Partisans, Braley continued, “overestimate how much members of the other party dislike and dehumanize them. Partisans tend to believe members of the other party want far more extreme policy outcomes than they actually do.” These misperceptions “can create a type of downward spiral in terms of polarization,” she wrote, citing Donald Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen:

This rhetoric likely causes Republicans to start to believe that Democrats are undermining democracy. When Democrats see this election denial, they naturally come to think that Republicans are trying to undermine democracy by not accepting election results. The result is a state of mutual fear.

Gabriel Lenz — a political scientist at Berkeley and one of Braley’s co-authors — emailed to say “that much of the polarization is delusional.”

“There are two main drivers” of this phenomenon, Lenz wrote. The first “is the need for politicians to mobilize citizens with busy lives and not much of an incentive to participate in politics. There are many ways politicians can mobilize voters, but fear is tried and true.”

The second is speculative: “That humans evolved to survive conflict with the other human groups around them,” Lenz wrote. “This likely selected for people who excelled at sticking together in conflicts. Many of our biases seem explained by this incentive, especially a tendency to see the other side as evil.”

Lenz stressed the point that

Politicians don’t need to fully convince their supporters of these perceptions to get their supporters to act on them. If I’m only partially convinced that Democrats intend to steal the next election or want to murder babies, that partial belief may still be enough to get me to act.

Even more significant, according to Lenz, is the recognition that

Some misperceptions are much more important than others. Misperceptions on policy or on the demographic makeup of parties are probably important, but they don’t directly threaten democracy. Misperceiving that the other side no longer supports democracy, however, is a more direct threat to democracy. It’s a more direct threat because it leads your own side to no longer support democracy to the same degree.

Lenz cited a 2020 paper, “Malice and Stupidity: Out-Group Motive Attribution and Affective Polarization” by Sean Freeder, a political scientist at the University of North Florida, who argued that “negative motive attribution — partisans’ tendency to assume ill intent guides out-party interests” is a “key dynamic underlying affective polarization. When asked why out-party members prefer certain policy outcomes, roughly half of partisan respondents offer an explanation involving selfishness, ignorance, hatred and other negative motives.”

Freeder wrote:

Exposure to positive out-group motives does appear to lead respondents to update out-partisan attributions, which in turn leads to increased out-group affect. However, motivated reasoning makes such updating likely only when the out-party motives shown are of uniformly high quality — even one bad apple appears to spoil the whole bunch.

Affective polarization can, in Freeder’s analysis, take on a momentum of its own:

Once partisan polarization begins, negative motive attribution may provide partisans with an easy way to ‘other’ the out-group, which in turn increases the internal desire to further negatively attribute. Such a feedback loop leads citizens to perceive themselves as increasingly surrounded by monsters.

There are other problems with efforts to lessen the mutual disdain of Democrats and Republicans.

A May 2023 paper by Diego A. ReineroElizabeth A. HarrisSteve RathjeAnnie Duke and Jay Van Bavel, “Partisans Are More Likely to Entrench Their Beliefs in Misinformation When Political Out-Group Members Fact-Check Claims,” argued that “fact-checks were more likely to backfire when they came from a political out-group member” and “corrections from political out-group members were 52 percent more likely to backfire — leaving people with more entrenched beliefs in misinformation.”

In sum, the authors concluded, “corrections are effective on average but have small effects compared to partisan identity congruence and sometimes backfire — especially if they come from a political out-group member.”

The rise of contemporary affective polarization is a distinctly 21st-century phenomenon.

In a July 2022 paper, “Testing the Robustness of the ANES Feeling Thermometer Indicators of Affective Polarization,” Shanto Iyengar and Matthew Tyler, both political scientists at Stanford, found that

The share of American National Election Studies partisans expressing extreme negativity for the out-party (a rating of 0 on a scale of 0 to 100) remained quite small leading up to and during 2000. Since 2000, however, the size of this share has increased dramatically — from 8 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2020. Thus, over the first two decades of this century, partisans’ mild dislike for their opponents metastasized into a deeper form of animus.

In their paper “Partisan Gaps in Political Information and Information-Seeking Behavior: Motivated Reasoning or Cheerleading?” Erik Peterson, a political scientist at Rice, and Iyengar asked, “Do partisan disagreements over politically relevant facts and preferences for the information sources from which to obtain them represent genuine differences of opinion or insincere cheerleading?”

Their answer: “Overall, our findings support the motivated reasoning interpretation of misinformation; partisans seek out information with congenial slant and sincerely adopt inaccurate beliefs that cast their party in a favorable light.”

In an email, Iyengar warned that “The threat to democratic functioning posed by misinformation is real. The people who stormed the Capitol were not cheerleading; they genuinely believed the election was ‘stolen.’”

He wrote that of the causes of increased affective polarization, “the explanation I consider most viable is changes in the media environment.” In the 1970s, he continued, “the vast majority of the voting-age population encountered the same news stories on the same topics” — what he called “a vast information commons.”

Today, Iyengar wrote, not only are there more sources of information, but also “partisans have ample opportunity to tune in to ‘congenial sources’ — news providers delivering coverage with a partisan slant in accord with the viewer.”

Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford, wrote by email that “there are two schools of thought” concerning delusions and misperceptions in contemporary politics:

The first argues that factual mistakes are a significant engine of polarization and if we spend time correcting people’s misperceptions, it will have beneficial knock-on effects in reducing affective polarization.

He continued, “In lab settings or other controlled environments where experts can bombard subjects with accurate information, people can move toward the center and release themselves from some of their partisan misconceptions.”

Persily wrote, however, that his analysis falls into a second school of thought:

I do not think most of affective polarization is driven by a misunderstanding of facts. Indeed, I think many in this field make the mistake of thinking that the line to be policed is the line between truth and falsehood. Rather, I think the critical question is usually whether the truth is relevant or not.

In this context, according to Persily, “partisan polarization resembles religious polarization. Attempting to ‘disprove’ someone’s long-held religion will rarely do much to convince them that your god is the right one.”

Viewed this way, partisan affiliation is an identity, Persily wrote, “and displays dynamics familiar to identity politics”:

People root for their team, and they find facts or other narratives to justify doing so. Remember, most people do not spend a lot of time thinking about politics. When they do so, their attitudes grow out of other affinities they have developed over time from signals sent by trusted elites or friendship networks.

Jay Van Bavel, a professor of psychology and neural science at N.Y.U., shares Iyengar’s view on the key role of the changing media environment. In an email, he wrote:

A good chunk of affective polarization is delusion or based on misperceptions. For instance, people have exaggerated stereotypes about the other party (and what members of the other party think of them), and when you correct those false perceptions, they quickly become less hostile.

People are motivated, he continued,

to affirm evidence that confirms their beliefs and affirms their identities. For committed partisans, they are often more motivated by these social goals than the desire to be accurate. People also share misinformation for social reasons — it can signal loyalty and help people gain status in some partisan communities.

A significant component, Van Bavel said, “is based on misperceptions they’ve absorbed from their social network on (social) media stories. It suggests that if we could simply provide accurate and diverse portrayals of other groups, it might reduce the growing trend toward affective polarization.”

But, he cautioned, “correcting misinformation is extremely hard; the impact tends to be pretty small in the political domain, and the effects don’t last long.”

In a 2021 paper, “Identity Concerns Drive Belief: The Impact of Partisan Identity on the Belief and Dissemination of True and False News,” Andrea PereiraElizabeth Harris and Van Bavel surveyed 1,420 Americans to see which of the following three alternatives best explained the rise and spread of political misinformation:

The ideological values hypothesis (people prefer news that bolster their values and worldviews), the confirmation bias hypothesis (people prefer news that fit their pre-existing stereotypical knowledge) and the political identity hypothesis (people prefer news that allow them to believe positive things about political in-group members and negative things about political out-group members).

Their conclusion:

Consistent with the political identity hypothesis, Democrats and Republicans were both more likely to believe news about the value-upholding behavior of their in-group or the value-undermining behavior of their out-group. Belief was positively correlated with willingness to share on social media in all conditions, but Republicans were more likely to believe and want to share political fake news.

There have been a number of studies published in recent years describing the success or failure of various approaches to reducing levels of misperception and affective polarization. The difficulties facing these efforts are reflected, in part, in an October 2022 paper, “Interventions Reducing Affective Polarization Do Not Necessarily Improve Antidemocratic Attitudes,” by Jan G. Voelkel, a sociologist at Stanford, and eight colleagues.

The authors found that even when “three depolarization interventions reliably reduced self-reported affective polarization,” the interventions “did not reliably reduce any of three measures of antidemocratic attitudes: support for undemocratic candidates, support for partisan violence and prioritizing partisan ends over democratic means.”

In other words, the irrational element of partisan hostility has seemingly created a political culture resistant to correction or reform. If so, the nation is stuck, at least for the time being, in a destructive cyclical pattern that no one so far has found a way to escape.

The embodiment of delusional politics is, of course, Donald Trump, with his false, indeed fraudulent, claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him. The continuing willingness of a majority of Republican voters to tolerate this delusion reflects the difficulty facing the nation as it struggles to restore sanity to American politics — if it’s not too late.

New York Times – May 31, 2023

The World Needs Neutrals

A collage of multiple hands circling a knot and untangling threads.
Credit…Nicole Natri

By Mirjana Spoljaric

Ms. Spoljaric is the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

You are either with us or against us.

This dictum has sorted humans into opposing camps for centuries. Cicero is said to have spoken these words to Julius Caesar. Political leaders across the globe still use them to rally support.

With great-power tensions rising and wars raging, the idea of neutrality these days may seem to many people anachronistic at best and amoral at worst. But we must make space for staying neutral to preserve our own humanity. Today, there are a great many places where neutral humanitarian action is under grave threat.

Taking sides in conflict is a natural impulse. It is also something that my organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, cannot do. If we did, it wouldn’t be possible to provide humanitarian assistance to people across the world’s most contentious theaters of armed conflict.

Here’s the problem: Civilians affected by armed conflict — whether in Ukraine, Sudan or Syria — are not always receiving the assistance they deserve. Worse, they’re being injured and killed in the crossfire or when combatants violate the laws of war.

The horrors of the Second World War led all the world’s nations to agree to the wartime protections mandated in the Geneva Conventions. Building on centuries-old rules of war, they seek to minimize human suffering by prohibiting, for example, rape, torture or executions of prisoners of war.

The laws of war exist to restrain humankind’s worst instincts because these barriers to brutality are a means to preserving pathways to peace.

The Geneva Conventions specifically name the I.C.R.C. to carry out wartime tasks. But whenever parties have not adhered to these laws, our teams have had less access to civilians in need and to prisoners of war than they should.

A neutral humanitarian body is a distinct feature of the international system, without which the whole system is weaker. The core values enshrined in international humanitarian law, universally agreed upon nearly 75 years ago, protected civilians, soldiers and prisoners of war back then. And they do so today.

What is the value of a neutral, impartial body dedicated to helping victims of war?

In the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the I.C.R.C. has visited hundreds of prisoners of war on both sides. (We haven’t visited all, and we keep working to be able to do so.) This work is possible only because of our commitment and adherence to neutrality — seeking a constructive dialogue with all the parties that can improve the situation of victims of armed conflicts. This requires building trust over time. It benefits individual prisoners and their families on both sides.

The same approach allowed us to continue our operations in Ethiopia during the conflict in Tigray, where we’ve delivered medicine to depleted clinics. In Syria, it means we have been able to deliver food and medicine to desperate communities for over a decade. In April, our teams transported nearly 1,000 detainees from all sides of the Yemen conflict back home.

Our neutrality allows us to visit detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and it allowed us to check on the health of a captured American pilot in Somalia in 1993 in the incident known as “Black Hawk Down.”

Being perceived as unbiased toward adversaries in a conflict allows us to operate more safely and effectively in the territories they control. By consistently considering the ways that words and actions might influence perceptions of neutrality, the I.C.R.C. seeks to avoid giving belligerents a pretext to refuse, block or hinder our work.

That work might include coordinating with parties to negotiate safe passage for civilians, as we did last year in Ukraine, action that nearly always requires the cooperation of both sides. It includes facilitating the exchange of remains of fallen combatants, as we long did in Afghanistan. It also allows us to share news with family members separated by violence as we do in places like South Sudan and Colombia.

Our neutrality is also often misunderstood. It is a means to render aid based on needs; it does not mean complacency in the face of suffering due to war crimes and other violations of law. We share our views on these violations and their harmful effects in direct and confidential dialogue with authorities. This approach, our experience shows, is more likely to lead to an eventual positive outcome while preserving access to those in need.

Not everyone needs to be neutral. But nations need to respect the space for humanitarian neutrality. When the world takes sides, we side with humanity. The world is a better place for it.

New York Times – May 30, 2023

You’ve Never Heard of Him, but He’s Remaking the Pollution Fight

Richard Revesz is changing the way the government calculates the cost and benefits of regulation, with far-reaching implications for climate change

A man with white hair wearing a blue suit sits in an office in front of a fireplace.
Richard Revesz in Washington, D.C.Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

This spring the Biden administration proposed or implemented eight major environmental regulations, including the nation’s toughest climate rule, rolling out what experts say are the most ambitious limits on polluting industries by the government in a single season.

Piloting all of that is a man most Americans have never heard of, running an agency that is even less well known.

But Richard Revesz has begun to change the fundamental math that underpins federal regulations designed to protect human health and the environment. And those calculations could affect American life and the economy for years to come.

Mr. Revesz, 65, heads the obscure but powerful White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is effectively the gatekeeper and final word on all new federal regulations. It has been known as the place where new rules proposed by government agencies, particularly environmental standards, go to die — or at least to be weakened or delayed.

But Mr. Revesz, a climate law expert and former dean of the New York University School of Law, joined the Biden administration in January to flip the script. Each time a major regulatory proposal has landed on his desk, Mr. Revesz has used his authority to strengthen its legal analysis and make it more stringent.

What’s more, he has proposed a new method of calculating the cost of potential regulation that would bolster the legal and economic justifications for those rules to protect them against an expected onslaught of court fights.

With his halo of snowy curls and Spanish lilt — a vestige of his childhood in Argentina — Mr. Revesz is known as “Ricky” to everyone from his law students to his legal opponents. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan has called him “a legend.” John Podesta, a senior climate adviser to Mr. Biden who also served in top roles in the Obama and Clinton administrations, considers Mr. Revesz his hero.

Conservatives see Mr. Revesz differently.

“He is the professor of gobbledygook!” said Elizabeth Murrill, the solicitor general of Louisiana, who plans to join Republican attorneys general from other states to challenge Mr. Biden’s climate regulations. “He is creating these numbers to try to justify destroying the fossil fuel industry and the petrochemical industry, to justify bankrupting people and destroying their lives. And they say it’s all justified because of the future, because they say they’re saving the planet.”

The climate regulations proposed by the Biden administration, together with $370 billion in clean energy funds from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, would catapult the United States to the forefront of the fight to constrain global warming.

While federal agencies write regulations, it’s the role of the White House regulatory chief to ensure that they are legally and economically sound.

But the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (known for short as OIRA, which rhymes with Elvira) has often concluded that proposed environmental, health and safety regulations would be too costly to business.

“In the past, OIRA has been the brake on regulations,” said Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard. “They’ve slowed things down and especially watered down environmental rules.”

That pattern had been largely true regardless of the party in charge. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard economist who led the regulatory office during the Obama administration, examined a proposal from the E.P.A. to reduce pollution linked to asthma and decided the costs to industry were too high, despite the projected health benefits. The rule was shelved, infuriating environmentalists.

But in April, Mr. Revesz proposed to change the way federal agencies tally and weigh the costs and benefits of proposed regulations relating to everything from climate change to consumer protections in ways to make them much more likely to see the light of day.

Two lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic chugs slowly around a curved highway that hugs the coast in California.
The E.P.A.’s proposal to tighten tailpipe emissions is designed to ramp up sales of electric vehicles and phase out the use of gasoline-powered cars.Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Until now, such analyses have been chiefly based on the current cost of a regulation to industry, compared against the benefits to society. Mr. Revesz’s alteration would emphasize how a regulation would benefit future generations.

That would have particular meaning when it comes to climate regulations, because scientists say the impact of greenhouse gases that are emitted now will be felt far into the future, in the form of rising seas, more devastating storms, extreme drought, wildfires and displacement.

“This is essentially saying that the federal government doesn’t just give weight to the costs on the economy this year or next year, while ignoring the benefits to our children, our grandchildren, their grandchildren,” said Robert Stavins, a professor of energy and economic development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The change would affect the metric that the federal government uses to calculate the harm caused by one ton of planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution. In the Obama administration, White House economists calculated that number at roughly $50 a ton. In the Trump administration, they lowered it to less than $5 a ton. Applying Mr. Revesz’s formula shoots up the cost to nearly $200 a ton.

Plug that number into, say, the E.P.A.’s proposal to tighten tailpipe emissions — a regulation designed to ramp up sales of electric vehicles while ending the use of gasoline-powered cars — and the economic benefit could increase to more than $1 trillion, much greater than the estimated cost to industry.

“It’s a very powerful change,” Mr. Revesz said.

He also believes that the government ought to consider the impact of a proposed regulation on different segments of the population. Current methods weigh the impact of a proposed regulation on the population as a whole. But poor and minority communities face greater exposure to pollution, so they would reap greater benefits from limits on that pollution.

Mr. Stavins and some other economists say the approach taken by Mr. Revesz is the most accurate way to analyze the impact of climate rules. “That’s the right way to think about it and the right way to do it,” Mr. Stavins said.

Critics say the changes would result in greater government interference in American life and harm businesses by increasing costs in an economy that has been edging toward recession.

“If they make decisions based on this change, that will have huge impacts on all kinds of federal programs,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a lawyer with Bracewell LLP, who represents fossil fuel companies and electric utilities. “It will certainly justify much more aggressive regulation, especially of greenhouse gas emissions, and that would almost certainly increase the cost of energy, which flows through to the cost of goods and services.”

Susan Dudley, who headed the regulatory office in the George W. Bush administration and now directs the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University, said Mr. Revesz appears to be trying to achieve a progressive agenda.

“To me there is a danger there — the previous guidelines from Reagan, Clinton and Bush were all seen as neutral, objective and focused on efficiency,” she said. “I think it won’t survive a Republican administration.”

Mr. Revesz says he is simply modernizing a method of calculations that was last updated during the George W. Bush administration. In 2003, government economists estimated the impact of regulation on future generations by considering the average interest rate on government bonds over the prior 30 years. Mr. Revesz took the same steps to come up with his metric.

“If you do exactly the same arithmetic with exactly the same formula with the most recent 30 years,” the result places a higher dollar value on future lives, Mr. Revesz said at a recent discussion at George Washington University.

A future administration could change the calculations again. But if that happens, “it will be obvious that they acted politically and that they acted contrary to science, and economics,” he said.

Mr. Revesz’s proposed method of calculating costs and benefits is expected to be finalized by the fall and used to justify Mr. Biden’s climate regulations when they are implemented early next year.

Clouds of white exhaust stream from a tan and white smokestack at a coal-burning power plant.
Carbon emissions from existing power plants, like the Plant Bowen power station in Georgia, generate 25 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases.Credit…Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

Mr. Revesz first began to think of costs and benefits as a child growing up in Buenos Aires. His parents had fled to Argentina from Hungary and Romania during World War II; his grandparents and four of his six aunts were murdered at Auschwitz.

Argentina offered a short respite from mayhem; during the 1960s, a military dictatorship destabilized the country.

“I had to get up for school at 6:30, but we didn’t get any heat in our building until 8, and it was actually pretty cold in the winter,” he recalled in an interview. “So when my alarm went off, instead of getting up right away, I would turn on the radio, because if there was either a coup or an attempted coup or a general strike, there’ll be no school. And the probability of this happening was sufficiently high that it made sense to find out before I actually got out of bed into the cold.”

He came to the United States in 1975 at age 17, two weeks before starting at Princeton on a full scholarship. After graduating, Mr. Revesz earned a master’s degree in environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became an American citizen during his second year at Yale Law School, where he was editor of the Yale Law Review. A clerkship for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall followed and in 1985, he began teaching at the New York University School of Law, where he served as dean from 2002 to 2013. From 2014 to 2022, he directed the American Law Institute, a century-old organization led by judges, law professors and legal experts.

He co-founded an N.Y.U.-affiliated think tank, the Institute for Policy Integrity, which devised the approach to analyzing the costs and benefits of environmental regulations that Mr. Revesz has brought to the White House.

During the Trump administration, he put that theory into practice: as the White House rolled back regulation after regulation, the nation’s Democratic attorneys general sued to fight the rollbacks. Mr. Revesz helped shape several of their winning arguments.

“He was a great resource for us,” said Brian Frosh, the former attorney general of Maryland.

After President Biden was elected, Mr. Revesz joined his transition team and immediately impressed the incoming White House political staff.

“There’s a million academics that swarm around transitions,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, who worked on the Biden transition team. “But Ricky stood out right away. He was incredibly specific about how to make the agency work better, how to make things stand up in court. There was a ton of conversations about how to avoid the fate of the Obama rules, and he was incredibly clarion.”

Mr. Revesz was on Mr. Biden’s short list to head the E.P.A. — but the president’s advisers wanted to bring him straight into the White House.

When he was nominated, Jonathan Adler, a conservative law professor at Case Western University, wrote on Twitter: “He was such an obvious choice for this position, one wonders what took so long.”

In an interview, Mr. Adler said, “If you want to go to court and file lawsuits against the Biden administration’s regulations, you don’t want Ricky Revesz mounting their defense.”

New York Times – May 28, 2023

How the Wind Became Woke

A photo illustration in which a close-up of Ron DeSantis speaking in the background is partially covered by a wind turbine in the foreground.
Credit…Illustration by Sam Whitney/The New York Times; photographs by John Raoux/Associated Press and Luis Diaz Devesa/Getty Images

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

The world is experiencing an energy revolution. Over the past 15 years or so, huge technological progress has, in many cases, made it cheaper to generate electricity from solar and wind power than by burning fossil fuels. The Inflation Reduction Act — which is, despite its name, mainly a climate bill — aims to accelerate the transition to renewables and also to electrify as much of the economy as possible; this effort, if it works quickly enough and is emulated by other countries, could help us avert climate catastrophe.

Even before the I.R.A. started to take effect, however, America was experiencing a renewable energy boom. And the boom has been led by a surprising place. Here’s a map showing renewable electricity generation other than hydroelectric by state (darker means more generation):

Credit…Energy Information Administration

Yes, Texas is in the lead. To be fair, California has more solar power, and a lot of geothermal electricity, too. But Texas dominates in wind power. And overall California is, even progressives have to admit, a state where NIMBYism sometimes seems to slide into BANANA territory — as in “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone.” That’s why housing is so scarce and expensive, and red tape has snarled green energy, too. Texas, whatever its flaws (which are many), is a place where things can get built, and that has included a lot of wind turbines.

You might think, then, that Texas politicians would be celebrating the renewables boom, which is both good for the state’s economy and an advertisement for the state’s laissez-faire policies.

But no. Republicans in the Texas legislature have turned hard against renewable energy, with a raft of proposed measures that would subsidize fossil fuels, impose restrictions that might block many renewable energy projects and maybe even shut down many existing facilities. The worst of these measures don’t seem to have made it into the latest legislation, but even so, that legislation strongly favors fossil fuels over an industry that arguably reflects Texas’s energy future.

So what’s going on here? Why do Texas Republicans now see the wind as an enemy? You might think that the answer is greed, and that’s surely part of it. But the bigger picture, I’d argue, is that renewable energy has become a victim of the anti-woke mind virus.

First, about greed. Yes, Texas is a state where what big business wants, big business gets. And the fossil fuel industry has a long history of doing what it can to block climate action, not just by lobbying against green energy policies but also by promoting climate denialism.

Yet there are several reasons to doubt whether Texas’s turn against renewables is a simple story of corporate greed. For one thing, renewable energy in Texas is already a big business itself, having attracted billions in investment and employing thousands of workers, which should act as a counterweight to fossil fuel interests.

Furthermore, a lot of Texas investment in green energy is actually coming from companies with roots in fossil fuels. So even some oil and gas companies have a financial stake in allowing the renewable boom to continue.

Finally, oil and gas are traded on world markets. The prices producers receive, and hence their profits, are determined more by global events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than by where Texas gets its electricity (although this obviously matters for the owners of power plants).

So I don’t think Texas’s rejection of its own energy success is entirely, or even mainly, about greed. Instead, renewables have been caught up in the culture wars. In a way, it’s a lot like Ron DeSantis’s confrontation with Disney, which looks just crazy from a policy point of view — why undermine tourism, one of the pillars of Florida’s economy? But these days it’s often important not to follow the money.

Right-wingers like Elon Musk and Ron DeSantis have become fond of citing the alleged power of the “woke mind virus” to explain why major corporations are tolerant of and even cater to social liberalism. They need to invoke this mysterious contagion to avoid accepting the obvious explanation: Most Americans have become relatively liberal on social matters — look at the transformation of attitudes on same-sex marriage — and corporations have been adjusting to their customer base.

But while talk of the woke mind virus manages to be both sinister and silly, I’d argue that there really is what we might call an anti-woke mind virus — a contagion that spreads not across people but across issues.

Here’s how it works. A significant faction of Americans, which increasingly dominates the Republican Party, hates anything it considers woke — which in this faction’s eyes means both any acknowledgment of social injustice and any suggestion that people should make sacrifices, or even accept mild inconvenience, in the name of the public good. So there’s rage against the idea that racism was and still is an evil for which society should make some amends; there’s also rage against the idea that people should, say, wear masks during a pandemic to protect others, or cut down on activities that harm the environment.

This rage is somewhat understandable, if not forgivable. But the weird thing is the way that it infects attitudes on issues that don’t actually involve wokeism but are seen as woke-adjacent.

The now-classic example is the way hostility to mask mandates, which were mainly about protecting others, turned into highly partisan opposition to Covid vaccination, which is mainly about protecting yourself. Logically, this carry-over makes no sense; but it happened anyway.

The same thing, I’d argue, applies to energy policy. At this point, investing in renewable energy is simply a good business proposition; Texas Republicans have had to abandon their own free-market, anti-regulation ideology in the effort to strangle wind and solar power. But renewable energy is something environmentalists favor; it’s being promoted by the Biden administration. So in the minds of Texas right-wingers the wind has become woke, and wind power has become something to be fought even if it hurts business and costs the state both money and jobs.

If all this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. But that’s Texas — and, I fear, much of America — in 2023.

New York Times – May 30, 2023

Life under the shadow of Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia: ‘This could be a second Chernobyl’

Ahead of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, concerns are growing over the safety of the nuclear power plant in Energodar, which was captured by Moscow at the beginning of the invasion. ‘If this explodes, only a shadow of us will remain’

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as seen on the far side of the Dnipro River from Ostriv, has been under Moscow's control since March 2022.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as seen on the far side of the Dnipro River from Ostriv, has been under Moscow’s control since March 2022.LUIS DE VEGA

Ostriv beach, mid-May 2023. On the shore are several Czech-made hedgehogs installed by the Ukrainian Army. These are anti-tank defenses made of metal bars intended to prevent Russian troops from landing. Next to them stands the dam wall, which is mined for the same purpose. On the other side are children’s swings, exercise bars and wooden benches painted blue and white, as well as an abandoned, flooded trench. Opposite, on the far bank of the Dnipro River, the six nuclear reactors of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, Europe’s largest atomic power generator, tower menacingly. The plant has been under Russian control since March 4, 2022, when it was captured a few days after Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine. Olga Muja, a local resident, casts her eye over the water toward them: “If this explodes, there will only be a shadow of us left.”

A sign on the beach announces that bathing is prohibited, but last summer the instruction was not paid much attention. Local residents swam and and basked in the sun, trying to maintain normal lives. But it is hard to forget the war in this village. Distant explosions are heard every now and then. Ostriv lies between the Russian positions and Nikopol and Marhanets in the Dnipropetrovsk region, two cities that have been constantly targeted by the Kremlin’s artillery. The village is located on the attack path toward both municipalities.

“Most people have left here,” says Olga, 66. “We hear gunfire every day, Grad rockets, artillery, and we are very afraid. I don’t understand what this war is about or why they want to kill us.” She says that she has no intention of leaving, that this is her home and that she wants to continue working her garden and taking care of her chickens and her orchard of 100 fruit trees. One of her six sons is fighting on the Bakhmut front. He calls her regularly: “Hi, I’m fine, I’m alive.”

Olga Muja, 66, with a neighbor in the garden of her house in the village of Ostriv.
Olga Muja, 66, with a neighbor in the garden of her house in the village of Ostriv.LUIS DE VEGA

Two of Olga’s neighbors, Raisa Sitnichenko, 76, and Valentina Riabchenko, 73, explain that they receive humanitarian aid once a month, including water and food, but that life here is extremely difficult. Valentina sometimes goes to stay at her son’s house in Marhanets when things get really bad. “These houses are old and we have no shelters,” Raisa adds.

The nearest large town to Ostriv is Nikopol, also opposite the nuclear power plant, which is located in Energodar. The road between the two municipalities is teeming with partridges and, above all, pheasants. As hunting has been banned for over a year because of the war, there are many more birds and they stroll quietly along the roads with their long tails and colorful feathers.

In Nikopol, explosions can be heard again, and the six reactors of the nuclear power plant loom even larger on the far side of the Dnipro. The area is a red zone, as designated by the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. A red zone implies that journalists cannot enter without express authorization and must be accompanied at all times by a military officer.

Raisa Stnelcova, 80, and Nadia Suslova, 72, two residents of Nikopol, in the Dnipropetrovsk province.
Raisa Stnelcova, 80, and Nadia Suslova, 72, two residents of Nikopol, in the Dnipropetrovsk province.LUIS DE VEGA

Under martial law, which was imposed in February 2022 when the invasion began, the Ukrainian Army has sweeping powers, even over fundamental rights such as the right to information or freedom of movement. Authorization to enter a red zone may be granted within a few days, or it may not come at all, depending on priorities at that moment. The Bakhmut front is a red zone, based on the logic that the lives of journalists are in extreme danger there and troop movements are classified. Nikopol is a red zone because of its proximity to Energodar and the nuclear plant. From undetermined locations along this stretch of the Dnipro, Ukrainian special forces have probed Russian defenses at the station with swift, small-scale amphibious landings.

Raisa Stnelcova, 80, and Nadia Suslova, 72, walk past a four-story building in Nikopol that was shelled at 2 a.m. on August 11. They live next door. “It really frightened us,” Raisa recalls. “Now, we are attacked every day, several times a day.” They, too, are worried about the proximity of the nuclear power plant. “This could be a second Chernobyl,” says Raisa, referring to the northern Ukrainian town, which was the site of the biggest nuclear disaster in history in 1986, when it was part of the USSR.

The mayor of Energodar before the Russian occupation is confident that the Ukrainian Army’s counteroffensive will be successful and the plant will be recaptured. His name is Dmitro Orlov, he is 37, and he now lives in Zaporizhzhia and holds his office in exile. He speaks to EL PAÍS from a center set up to provide humanitarian aid to the inhabitants of Energodar who fled when the Russians arrived. “There used to be about 53,000 people living there, and now there are about 15,000,″ he says. “Some went overseas, but most of them are in Ukraine waiting for the liberation of the city to return to their homes.”

There used to be about 53,000 people [in Energodar], and now there are about 15,000,″Dmitro Orlov, mayor of Energodar

Dmitro Orlov, the mayor of Energodar, during an interview with EL PAÍS.
Dmitro Orlov, the mayor of Energodar, during an interview with EL PAÍS.LUIS DE VEGA HERNÁNDEZ

The nuclear power plant produces almost no electricity. All six reactors are operating at minimum mode, known as cold shutdown. The neighboring thermoelectric station is also dormant. Before the war, Energodar generated half of Ukraine’s nuclear-powered electricity. “We hope that the counteroffensive will be successful so that the power plant can resume its activities, generate much-needed electricity and the city can return to normal life,” says Orlov.

A team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been monitoring the plant’s safety since September last year. The agency’s director general, Rafael Grossi, warned this week that the plant had lost all external electricity for the seventh time during the conflict, forcing it to rely on emergency diesel generators. “[The] nuclear safety situation at the plant [is] extremely vulnerable. We must agree to protect [the] plant now; this situation cannot continue” he wrote on Twitter.

Oleksii Blinechuk worked at the plant until last summer, when he left for Zaporizhzhia with his family. He says the Russians have hired inexperienced managers to run the nuclear station. “These are people who have nothing to do with the energy sector and should not be there,” he states. He still keeps in touch with some of his colleagues who remain at the plant.

Oleksii Blinechuk, a former employee of the Zaporizhzhia plant, says the Russian occupiers are unqualified to manage the center.
Oleksii Blinechuk, a former employee of the Zaporizhzhia plant, says the Russian occupiers are unqualified to manage the center.

The Zaporizhzhia front may be the most decisive of the war, as U.S. and U.K. military intelligence have publicly stressed. The Ukrainian military in the area and defense analysts agree. “Everyone is watching Bakhmut, but what happens here is more important,” Stepan, an officer in the Artey infantry battalion, told this newspaper last February.

breakthrough on the Zaporizhzhia front would allow Ukrainian troops to advance towards the coast of the Sea of Azov without having to stage a landing on the Dnipro River, which is an extremely complex undertaking, according to military experts. If Kyiv liberates the province, it would also regain control of Energodar and the nuclear plant. The next stage, which would represent a significant victory, would be to reach the city of Melitopol, on the Sea of Azov. From there, Ukrainian forces could cut off supply lines to Russian troops along the coast, toward Kherson, the Black Sea, and Crimea.

If the Ukrainian counteroffensive is staged in Zaporizhzhia, every urban center could be turned into a defensive fortress by Russian troops and the fighting could devastate entire towns, as was the case with the counteroffensives last year in the provinces of Kherson and Kharkiv. But if the Russians maintain their positions around the nuclear power plant, the risk will not be that a village will be razed to the ground, but that millions of people could be affected, only their shadows remaining, as feared by Olga. The question is whether the Kremlin would order its troops to withdraw if they are surrounded, or whether Moscow will continue to play the atomic blackmail card.

El Pais in English – May 26, 2023

Ukraine war: General Kyrylo Budanov promises revenge after latest Kyiv attack

Police officers stand next to missile debris in Kyiv
Image caption,Police officers stand next to missile debris in Kyiv

The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence has warned of a swift response to a series of Russian missile strikes on Kyiv.

General Kyrylo Budanov said Monday’s attacks failed to intimidate people in the capital who just got on with life.

All the missiles were shot down, officials said, and there were no reports of casualties.

However flaming debris from the intercepted missiles landed in residential areas in central Kyiv.

Monday’s attack followed two nights of heavy drone strikes, the latest in some 16 air attacks on the Ukrainian capital this month.

The latest was unusual because it came during the day and seemed targeted at the city centre, whereas other strikes on Kyiv in May have been at night and directed at key infrastructure or air defences on the outskirts.

Gen Budanov said he wanted to “upset” Russia’s supporters by letting them know people in Kyiv were undeterred by the attack and had continued working after it.

“All those who tried to intimidate us, dreaming that it would have some effect, you will regret it very soon,” he added in a statement published by Ukraine’s intelligence ministry. “Our answer will not be long.”

According to reports, only one person was injured and all missiles were destroyed by Ukrainian air defences. Russian authorities claimed all their targets had been hit.

Air raid sirens reportedly also rang out across several other Ukrainian regions.

Local military commanders in Kyiv accused Russia of changing its tactics and deliberately targeting the civilian population. It certainly appears that Moscow wants to step up its pressure on Ukraine even further ahead of any counter-offensive.

Kyiv residents take shelter in a metro station
Image caption,Kyiv residents take shelter in a metro station

Oleksandr Scherba, ambassador-at-large at Ukraine’s ministry of foreign affairs, told the BBC that the last few days had been very difficult for Kyiv residents.

“Almost every night, the skies look and sound like another Star Wars episode, but we don’t feel much of Russian rockets hitting their targets here within the city area. And this is all thanks to the decent countries, decent people of the world who gave us this air defence,” he said.

Living in the capital was anything but normal at the moment, Mr Scherba said, adding that the drone attacks and sleepless nights had become “part of our routine”.

On Sunday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky praised his country’s air defence forces after Kyiv sustained the largest drone attack since the war began.

“You are heroes,” said Mr Zelensky, after military commanders said most of the drones launched by Russia were brought down.

In its recent attacks, Russia – which launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022 – has been using kamikaze drones as well as a range of cruise and ballistic missiles.

Analysts say Moscow is seeking to deplete and damage Ukraine’s air defences ahead of its long-expected counter-offensive.

Ukraine has been planning a counter-offensive for months. But it has wanted as much time as possible to train troops and to receive military equipment from Western allies.

On Monday, in Russian region of Belgorod, the governor said that several frontier settlements were being shelled simultaneously by Ukrainian forces.

In the meantime, Russian forces have been preparing their defences in the seized regions of south-eastern Ukraine.

BBC News – May 29, 2023

Here’s What Happens When Your Lawyer Uses ChatGPT

A lawyer representing a man who sued an airline relied on artificial intelligence to help prepare a court filing. It did not go well.

An Avianca plane in flight, with its landing gear down and cirrostratus clouds in the background.
As an Avianca flight approached Kennedy International Airport in New York, a serving cart collision began a legal saga, prompting the question: Is artificial intelligence so smart?Credit…Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto, via Getty Images

The lawsuit began like so many others: A man named Roberto Mata sued the airline Avianca, saying he was injured when a metal serving cart struck his knee during a flight to Kennedy International Airport in New York.

When Avianca asked a Manhattan federal judge to toss out the case, Mr. Mata’s lawyers vehemently objected, submitting a 10-page brief that cited more than half a dozen relevant court decisions. There was Martinez v. Delta Air Lines, Zicherman v. Korean Air Lines and, of course, Varghese v. China Southern Airlines, with its learned discussion of federal law and “the tolling effect of the automatic stay on a statute of limitations.”

There was just one hitch: No one — not the airline’s lawyers, not even the judge himself — could find the decisions or the quotations cited and summarized in the brief.

That was because ChatGPT had invented everything.

The lawyer who created the brief, Steven A. Schwartz of the firm Levidow, Levidow & Oberman, threw himself on the mercy of the court on Thursday, saying in an affidavit that he had used the artificial intelligence program to do his legal research — “a source that has revealed itself to be unreliable.”

Mr. Schwartz, who has practiced law in New York for three decades, told Judge P. Kevin Castel that he had no intent to deceive the court or the airline. Mr. Schwartz said that he had never used ChatGPT, and “therefore was unaware of the possibility that its content could be false.”

He had, he told Judge Castel, even asked the program to verify that the cases were real.

It had said yes.

Mr. Schwartz said he “greatly regrets” relying on ChatGPT “and will never do so in the future without absolute verification of its authenticity.”

Judge Castel said in an order that he had been presented with “an unprecedented circumstance,” a legal submission replete with “bogus judicial decisions, with bogus quotes and bogus internal citations.” He ordered a hearing for June 8 to discuss potential sanctions.

As artificial intelligence sweeps the online world, it has conjured dystopian visions of computers replacing not only human interaction, but also human labor. The fear has been especially intense for knowledge workers, many of whom worry that their daily activities may not be as rarefied as the world thinks — but for which the world pays billable hours.

Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics professor at New York University School of Law, said the issue was particularly acute among lawyers, who have been debating the value and the dangers of A.I. software like ChatGPT, as well as the need to verify whatever information it provides.

“The discussion now among the bar is how to avoid exactly what this case describes,” Mr. Gillers said. “You cannot just take the output and cut and paste it into your court filings.”

The real-life case of Roberto Mata v. Avianca Inc. shows that white-collar professions may have at least a little time left before the robots take over.

It began when Mr. Mata was a passenger on Avianca Flight 670 from El Salvador to New York on Aug. 27, 2019, when an airline employee bonked him with the serving cart, according to the lawsuit. After Mr. Mata sued, the airline filed papers asking that the case be dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.

In a brief filed in March, Mr. Mata’s lawyers said the lawsuit should continue, bolstering their argument with references and quotes from the many court decisions that have since been debunked.l

Soon, Avianca’s lawyers wrote to Judge Castel, saying they were unable to find the cases that were cited in the brief.

When it came to Varghese v. China Southern Airlines, they said they had “not been able to locate this case by caption or citation, nor any case bearing any resemblance to it.”

They pointed to a lengthy quote from the purported Varghese decision contained in the brief. “The undersigned has not been able to locate this quotation, nor anything like it in any case,” Avianca’s lawyers wrote.

Indeed, the lawyers added, the quotation, which came from Varghese itself, cited something called Zicherman v. Korean Air Lines Co. Ltd., an opinion purportedly handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in 2008. They said they could not find that, either.

Judge Castel ordered Mr. Mata’s attorneys to provide copies of the opinions referred to in their brief. The lawyers submitted a compendium of eight; in most cases, they listed the court and judges who issued them, the docket numbers and dates.

The copy of the supposed Varghese decision, for example, is six pages long and says it was written by a member of a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit. But Avianca’s lawyers told the judge that they could not find that opinion, or the others, on court dockets or legal databases.

Bart Banino, a lawyer for Avianca, said that his firm, Condon & Forsyth, specialized in aviation law and that its lawyers could tell the cases in the brief were not real. He added that they had an inkling a chatbot might have been involved.

Mr. Schwartz did not respond to a message seeking comment, nor did Peter LoDuca, another lawyer at the firm, whose name appeared on the brief.

Mr. LoDuca said in an affidavit this week that he did not conduct any of the research in question, and that he had “no reason to doubt the sincerity” of Mr. Schwartz’s work or the authenticity of the opinions.

ChatGPT generates realistic responses by making guesses about which fragments of text should follow other sequences, based on a statistical model that has ingested billions of examples of text pulled from all over the internet. In Mr. Mata’s case, the program appears to have discerned the labyrinthine framework of a written legal argument, but has populated it with names and facts from a bouillabaisse of existing cases.

Judge Castel, in his order calling for a hearing, suggested that he had made his own inquiry. He wrote that the clerk of the 11th Circuit had confirmed that the docket number printed on the purported Varghese opinion was connected to an entirely different case.

Calling the opinion “bogus,” Judge Castel noted that it contained internal citations and quotes that, in turn, were nonexistent. He said that five of the other decisions submitted by Mr. Mata’s lawyers also appeared to be fake.

On Thursday, Mr. Mata’s lawyers offered affidavits containing their version of what had happened.

Mr. Schwartz wrote that he had originally filed Mr. Mata’s lawsuit in state court, but after the airline had it transferred to Manhattan’s federal court, where Mr. Schwartz is not admitted to practice, one of his colleagues, Mr. LoDuca, became the attorney of record. Mr. Schwartz said he had continued to do the legal research, in which Mr. LoDuca had no role.

Mr. Schwartz said that he had consulted ChatGPT “to supplement” his own work and that, “in consultation” with it, found and cited the half-dozen nonexistent cases. He said ChatGPT had provided reassurances.

“Is varghese a real case,” he typed, according to a copy of the exchange that he submitted to the judge.

“Yes,” the chatbot replied, offering a citation and adding that it “is a real case.”

Mr. Schwartz dug deeper.

“What is your source,” he wrote, according to the filing.

“I apologize for the confusion earlier,” ChatGPT responded, offering a legal citation.

“Are the other cases you provided fake,” Mr. Schwartz asked.

ChatGPT responded, “No, the other cases I provided are real and can be found in reputable legal databases.”

But, alas, they could not be.

New York Times – May 27, 2023

Fixer-Uppers With Waterfront Views: The U.S. Is Unloading Lighthouses

The General Services Administration said it was offering six to nonprofits or government agencies that promise to maintain them, and selling four others at auction.

A lighthouse on a raised circular structure of gray bricks.
The Stratford Shoal Middle Ground Light Station in the Long Island Sound is one of the lighthouses the government is unloading.Credit…General Services Administration

Looking for a place with waterfront views? The government might have a deal for you.

The General Services Administration said on Friday that it was giving away six lighthouses to nonprofits or government agencies that promise to maintain them, and planned to sell four others to the public at auction.

The lighthouses are on some of the most picturesque waters in New England and the Midwest. But aspiring lightkeepers should be prepared to do some repair work before living out their 19th-century maritime fantasies.

Many of the majestic beacons, which were once vital to protecting sailors from reefs and rocky coastlines, have fallen into neglect and disrepair as navigational technology has advanced into the GPS age.

Some may only be accessible by boat, like the Stratford Shoal Light, perched on a submerged reef in the middle of Long Island Sound, midway between the New York and Connecticut coasts, and the 51-foot-tall octagonal Penfield Reef Lighthouse off Fairfield, Conn., which includes a two-story house with keeper’s quarters.

Also available at auction are the 68-foot-tall Keweenaw Waterway Lower Entrance Light, in Chassell, Mich., which opened in 1919 and marks the southern end of the Portage River, and the Cleveland Harbor West Pierhead Light at the entrance to Cleveland Harbor, with a view of that city’s skyline.

“They’re such unusual reflections of our history that it takes a certain kind of person who wants to be a part of that,” Robin Carnahan, administrator of the G.S.A., said in an interview on Friday.

In addition to the four lighthouses slated for auction, six lighthouses have been offered at no cost to local, state, and federal agencies, nonprofits, educational groups and community development organizations that have the money to maintain them, and that promise to make them available to the public at “reasonable times and under reasonable conditions,” the G.S.A. said.

A white lighthouse next to a white house with a red roof against a deep blue sky.
The Warwick Neck Lighthouse in Warwick, R.I., is being offered free by the government to qualified entities.Credit…Barbara Salfity/General Services Administration, via Associated Press

They are: the Lynde Point Lighthouse in Old Saybrook, Conn., the Nobska Lighthouse in Woods Hole, Mass., the Plymouth (Gurnet) Lighthouse in Plymouth, Mass., the Warwick Neck Light in Warwick, R.I., the Little Mark Island and Monument in Harpswell, Maine, and the Erie Harbor North Pier Lighthouse in Erie, Pa. The initial offering phase for the Erie lighthouse recently closed, the G.S.A. said.

Since Congress passed a law authorizing the government to transfer ownership of lighthouses in 2000, more than 150 have been conveyed to new owners, including 81 that have been handed over to state, local and nonprofit agencies and about 70 that have been sold at auctions.

Prices at auctions have ranged from $10,000 to $933,888, according to the G.S.A.

Sheila Consaul, a communications consultant in Washington, D.C., bought the Fairport Harbor West Lighthouse in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, for about $71,000 at a G.S.A. auction in 2011, and converted it into a summer home.

Ms. Consaul’s red-and-white lighthouse, which was built on Lake Erie in 1925, is still a working navigational aid, with a solar-powered beacon maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard and a weather station maintained by the National Weather Service, she said.

“I think my favorite part is having saved such an icon,” Ms. Consaul said. “It’s got all the things that a beautiful summer house on the water would have, but it’s so sentimental to so many people in those little towns where they are.”

She warned potential bidders, however, to consider that many lighthouses lack basic utilities and were built in remote locations that are not easily accessible to contractors. She said it had taken her nine years to install running water in her lighthouse.

Still, that “very long journey” has been worth it, Ms. Consaul said. She said she loves inviting people from the community to see inside, watching the sunset and gazing at stars.

“There are some amazingly incredible views, as well as history and intrigue,” she said. “All of those things people think about lighthouses are true.”

New York Times – May 27, 2023