The Affordable Care Act (aka ACA, aka Obamacare) subsidies to help people buy health insurance got saved by the US Supreme Court after all, with the somewhat unexpected help (unexpected by me, anyway) of Chief Justice John Roberts. Here’s my entirely biased summary from last week’s On Science Blogs post on the then-pending Supreme Court Case (and other matters.)
And here’s SCOTUSblog’s Amy Howe on the decision: “Court backs Obama administration on health-care subsidies: In Plain English.” Also many many many more SCOTUSblog analytic posts that begin here. In advance of the decision, JoAnne Kenen provided links to lots of helpful background at Covering Health, the blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists.
A couple of headlines make clear the opposing positions on that disputed language in the ACA, the basis for this ridiculous case:
From Hit & Run, a libertarian site: “Supreme Court Resigns Duties, Tortures English Language to Save Obamacare
Judicial restraint? More like judicial hysterical appeasement.”
From Swampland, at Time: “Supreme Court Rules That a Typo Should Not Undo Obamacare.”
President Obama and others, Sarah Kliff at Vox for one, say the ruling means the ACA is here to stay. At Kaiser Health News, Jay Hancock is not entirely sure that’s so. Several suits against the law are still pending, and Congress will go on trying to change the law. “The high court decision sets up the 2016 presidential election as the health law’s next big test, although by then it could be difficult to fully uproot even if Republicans take the White House.”
At the Health Policy Blog at the right-wing National Center for Policy Analysis, John Graham forecasts that “The People, Not The Judges, Will Replace Obamacare” and makes suggestions for some Congressional actions he believes are doable.
In the meantime, lower courts–even conservative ones–keep knocking down legal challenges to Obamacare’s declaration that birth control should be free to all those covered. Jessica Mason Pieklo explains at RH Reality Check.
These are all just first takes; by the time you read this post thousands of others will also have had something to say.
Where Homo sapiens came from
On to one of everybody’s favorite topics, the story of where we humans came from. I write about genetics and DNA all the time, but I’m still bowled over by how much the genome has, in just a few years, contributed to our understanding of our origins (and maybe, depending on where gene editing takes us, where we are going.)
But first, the past. I call your attention the new PBS TV series on human origins, First Peoples, which has just begun. I have watched the first hour, which gets things a little backward because it’s about settlement of the Americas, one of the last places we landed.
Like most science documentaries, it relies on docudrama techniques. Shots of impossibly hunky dudes, clad in tailored skins and apparently lice-free, wielding spears in gorgeous landscapes. Overpowering cookie-cutter music that frequently drowns out the narration. And a budget that apparently permitted only a few of these things because they are repeated over and over.
But the interviews are pretty straightforward and informative. And I can’t quarrel at all with the argument of the first hour, since it embraces a formerly off-the-wall notion about American migration that I wrote about, ahem, in 1999.
To wit, the first Americans didn’t get here by using their feet. They used their heads. They came by boat. After crossing what was then the Bering land bridge from Asia, they paddled down the Pacific coast about 15,000 years ago. A couple of thousand years later they were definitely in Chile, almost to South America’s tip.
At Ars Technica, John Timmer has some reservations about First Peoples, but ends up saying, “Scientifically, just about everything seems solid and reasonably current.” Agreed.
The Kennewick Man story, but not Kennewick Man, finally laid to rest
Which brings us to the very complicated Kennewick Man story, tackled in the first episode of First Peoples. Where does this 8500 year-old skeleton, found in Washington State in 1996, belong? Should his remains, old as they are, be turned over to Native American tribes for burial, as the law specifies? Or does he belong only to the science of paleontology? His skull shape is different from today’s Native Americans. Does that mean he’s not one of them? Might he even be, gasp, European?
Those are among the questions that have bedeviled scientific study of the remains. Last week a paper in Nature answered the question of origins definitively: Kennewick Man’s DNA is unquestionably Native American.
This new paper got a lot of publicity, but it isn’t really news. The basic nugget, that Kennewick Man’s DNA is definitely Native American, was published by the Seattle Times in January, thanks to–of all things–a Freedom of Information Act request. An indication of the politics of Kennewick Man. At GeneExpression, Razib Khan has details and discusses migratory theories. Ewan Callaway’s piece at Nature News is illuminating on the politics.
And Kennewick Man’s skull shape isn’t such a puzzle after all. It’s similar to the skull shape of the teenage girl found in an underwater cave in Yucatan. I wrote about this find, dated at about 13,000 years ago, last year. That date makes the girl the oldest American skeleton so far. Her mitochondrial DNA marks her as related conclusively to today’s Native Americans despite the different skull shape.
So what explains the skull shape differences between these ancient ones, who are by DNA clearly ancestors of today’s Native Americans? Evolution. And yes, it can happen that fast. The genetic ability to digest milk as an adult spread widely in Africa and Europe beginning at most no more than 8000 years ago.
The final turn to this twisted tale is inside baseball, of interest chiefly to science writers. The new paper was published with a very short embargo time, meaning it was made available to journalists only a day or so before official publication. Science writers were miffed because the brief advance warning–embargoed papers are usually handed out at least a few days before publication–gave them little time to prepare a complicated assignment that incorporates recaps of lots of political maneuvering in addition to explaining the DNA results.
Ivan Oransky has a juicy account at Embargo Watch, complete with indignant tweets. It’s also now clear what the unusually short embargo was almost certainly about: Nature hurried the paper into publication because there was pressure to tie it in to, ta-da, the First Peoples PBS series that was about to begin–with an initial episode covering the Kennewick Man story.