What's the best way to detect chemical weapons?

If you're invested in the question of whether Syria has used chemical weapons on its own citizens, you've been exposed to a range of terms like "soil samples," "witness interviews," "dilated pupils," and "urine samples." For most laymen, it's not clear which piece of evidence is more reliable than the other. But the question couldn't be more important given allegations by France, Britain, and now Israel that Syrian forces have deployed chemical weapons -- an act that would constitute a "red line" for the United States if true. Since all evidence is not created equal, we asked international chemical weapons consultant Ralf Trapp about the various investigative techniques cited in the case of Syria -- and their value. 

Pictures of victims whose mouths are frothing and pupils are dilated

This evidence was cited today by Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, the chief of research and analysis for the Israeli army's military intelligence division. "The dilated pupils, the frothing at the mouth and other signs testify, in our view, to the use of liquid chemical weapons, some kind of liquid chemical weapons, apparently sarin," said Brun. The quality of this evidence depends on a range of factors: Who took the pictures, how many pictures there are, how old the victims are, and whether the images are authentic. At the moment, it's not clear how many images the Israelis have seen, and it's very difficult to determine anything conclusively with a small number of images, said Trapp. "A small number of pictures from victims is an important lead, but isn't in itself evidence," he explained.

Soil samples

France and Britain say soil samples support charges that Syria used nerve agents in Aleppo, Homs, and possibly Damascus. According to Trapp, collecting soil samples is a reliable technique because chemical agents can remain in soil for a long time. The question in this case is: Was the sample protected from interference? The ideal scenario is if a soil sample is collected, packaged, and protected from outsiders, but little is publicly known about how the soil was collected in Syria.

Urine samples

No one has cited urine samples as evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria yet, but the CIA has requested urine samples from Syrian rebels, according to the New York Times. While this technique can be useful because certain biomarkers will appear in the urine of victims, it's recommended that the test be conducted within two days of the incident or a test could result in a false negative. Blood tests can also be useful, but are more difficult because they require a physician to draw the blood and the consent of the victim.

Witness interviews

The French and British have also cited "witness interviews," which can be valuable but rely crucially on how the interview is conducted. It's important to query a range of witnesses and compare the testimonies to each other for corroboration or contradiction. It's also important to avoid leading questions. If Trapp was assigned to Syria, he'd ask the witnesses simples questions: What happened? When did it happen? What did you see, hear, and smell?

Hair samples

The CIA is also seeking out hair samples, which can be useful because evidence can remain in the hair for a long time. Obviously, it's important to authenticate the individual and the context in which they were exposed before using the sample as evidence.

While each of the above pieces of evidence has value, Trapp adds that an optimal piece of evidence would be a chemical artillery shell discovered in the field. Thus far, that hasn't happened, which explains the reliance on other indicators.


The terrible, horrible, no good future of news media, according to Eric Schmidt

Last week, I blogged about some of the exciting technological advances Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, predict in their new book, The New Digital Age, which comes out on April 23. Today, I want to focus on one of their more sobering predictions -- what they see as the future of news reporting.

On a very basic level, Schmidt and Cohen just put into words what deep down we already knew: that the proliferation of technology has turned everyone into a reporter and that media organizations will only lag further and further behind platforms like Twitter and Facebook, both of which are now regularly the first to serve up important breaking news. "If everyone in the world has a data-enabled phone or access to one -- a not-so-distant reality -- then the ability to 'break news' will be left to luck and chance," the authors write.

In a hyper-connected world, the mainstream media will have to get out of the business of breaking news (with the exception of investigative reporting) since "people will have little patience or use for media that cannot keep up." To survive, the authors predict, established media organizations will "report less and validate more." With huge amounts of unverified data floating around, readers will increasingly look to these outlets to identify what is important and separate rumor from fact. Analysis and contextualization will also become increasingly valuable, as more and more stories appear in the form of disjointed 140-character vignettes.

So far so good. But Schmidt and Cohen also foresee a far more frightening prospect. In one of the more distressing passages of the book, they suggest that celebrities might one day start their own "news portals" focused on pet issues that compete head-to-head with established news media. "[L]et's call it Brangelina news," they write, with no trace of irony. "In short order, they become the ultimate source of information and news on the conflict because they are both highly visible and have built up enough credibility in their work that they can be taken seriously."

Such outfits would effectively subsidize coverage of an issue area -- be it the conflict in Darfur or the hunt for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony -- displacing established news outlets whose coverage is sparse, whether because of insufficient funds or lack of interest. Some of these new media outfits "will be solid attempts to contribute to public discourse," the authors write, "but many will be vapid and nearly content free, merely exercises in self-promotion and commercialized fame." (One might easily imagine other outlets that are explicitly pernicious, established solely for the purpose of obscuring the truth or countering narratives seen as detrimental to sponsors' interests.)

But Schmidt and Cohen don't think the rise of Brangelina news is cause for particular concern: "If a celebrity outlet doesn't provide enough news, or consistently makes errors that are publicly exposed, the audience will leave," they write. In this, I'm not sure they're right. Consistently bad (or fictitious reporting) from celebrity tabloids -- of which these new outfits would be a logical extension -- is clearly good for business. (People magazine is reportedly the most profitable publication in the world.)

Even news organizations that style themselves as more serious outlets appear to benefit from facts-free reporting. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, both CNN and the New York Post did remarkably well despite shoddy coverage. (CNN managed to attract one of its biggest audiences of the decade on Friday, April 19, after four days of hit-and-miss coverage that earned it a shout-out on the Daily Show.)  

I couldn't find any hard data on how traffic to the New York Post's website fared during the week, but according Google Trends, searches for "New York Post" spiked to roughly five times the typical level (it's hardly an exact proxy for web traffic, but I think it's revealing nonetheless). 

Here's the same data for CNN.

Meanwhile, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, both of which did standup jobs covering the bombing, saw more modest spikes in their Google Trends data.

Of course, the Google Trends data for the Boston Globe -- which also did a solid reporting job -- blows my whole theory out of the water, but I'm going to chalk it up to people wanting to hear what the local papers had to say.

Long story short, Schmidt and Cohen paint a believable picture of where news media is headed, but I'm not sure they recognize just how destructive it all might be. Even the business model they describe for Brangelina news is one that militates against substantive coverage. ("[T]hey might not even need to compensate reporters and stringers, some of whom would work for free in exchange for the visibility.") This model will no doubt be successful -- assuming no one asks Nate Thayer to contribute -- but it's certainly not a recipe for high-quality copy.

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