Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Reading

Scientific America — Charles P. Pierce on the march for science.

WASHINGTON—They named this town—Forgive me, This Town—after a man of science, a surveyor and an experimental farmer from down the cowpaths in Virginia. In 1783, while waiting to hear that the fighting part of the American Revolution was over, he took time to team up with another science aficionado, a not-altogether successful engineer named Thomas Paine, to investigate the phenomena caused by swamp gas in Virginia. Four years later, in a closed laboratory of politics in Philadelphia, he presided over the deliberations that produced a Constitution that, in the eighth section of its very first article, promised that the new government would,

“…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts…”

Talking through a thick mist thickening swiftly into a hard rain, and talking from a stage beneath the obelisk dedicated to that one famous polymath out of an age famous for producing them, Bill Nye took it upon himself to remind the people who had gathered on Saturday to March For Science, that they were descended in every important way from men of science.

The Framers of our Constitution, which has become a model for constitutions of governments everywhere, included Article I, Section 8… Its intent was to motivate innovators and drive the economy by means of just laws. They knew our economy would falter without them, without scientifically literate citizens, the U.S. cannot compete on the world stage.

(Speaking immediately before Nye, Manu Prakash, a Stanford neuroscientist, argued that scientific literacy was a basic human right because, in so many places, it literally is a matter of life and death.)

Yet, today, we have lawmakers, here and around the world, deliberately ignoring or actively suppressing science. Their inclination is misguided and it is in nobody’s best interest.

This, of course, was the central paradox of Saturday’s event, which coincided with the 47th celebration of Earth Day. It was the brainchild of a senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson, who had been on fire for what was then called “ecology” or “conservation” ever since he ran through the woods in and around Clear Lake, the small village in northern Wisconsin where he grew up.

As he came up through politics, Nelson was steeped in the Progressive heritage of his home state. In 1963, in his first year in the Senate after two terms as Wisconsin’s governor, an ascension to which Nelson’s environmental policies were critical, Nelson convinced President John F. Kennedy to embark on a series of speeches across the country concerning the environment, one of the most public demonstrations of White House commitment in that regard since the death of Teddy Roosevelt even though Kennedy was swamped on the tour with questions about a nuclear test-ban treaty that he’d recently concluded with the Soviet Union.

By 1970, Nelson was in his second term in the Senate and the news had become full of environmental catastrophe. In January of 1969, there was a massive oil spill off Santa Barbara in California and, almost exactly six months later, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland famously caught on fire. On April 22, 1970, Nelson helped organize Earth Day, which was a massive outbreak of activism around the country. That kicked off what became known as the Environmental Decade, wherein was passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other environmental regulations, all of them based on a sturdy bipartisan scientific consensus.

That was then. This is now. In 2017, the country needs a series of marches across the landscape to remind itself that scientific progress and American democracy are inextricably bound for their mutual survival. The current president* has leaked a budget that decimates the federal government’s role in all manner of scientific research, from the fight against epidemic disease to the war on climate change. Which was why, walking through the drizzly day on the White House end of the National Mall, you saw epidemiologists sharing umbrellas with geologists, or a group of microbiologists huddling low under a spreading cherry tree alongside a knot of anesthesiologists. People walked around dressed as bees and as lobsters and as Beaker, the lab assistant from the Muppet Show. People walked around in overalls and in lab coats. They wore the now-classic pussy hats repurposed to resemble the configurations of the human brain and they wore stethoscopes around their necks.

“What do we want?” the signs said.

“Science!”

“When do we want it?”

“After peer review!”

(The musical interludes from the main stage were enlivened by the appearance of Thomas Dolby, who performed his hit, “She Blinded Me With Science,” backed by John Batiste and Stay Human, which gave Dolby’s vintage techno-pop tune a bit of New Orleans second-line juice.)

There was a great deal of infighting—”Some very ugly meetings,” said one person familiar with them—about how specifically political the march should be. The older and more conventional scientists—most of them white males, for all that means in every public issue these days—tried to make the march and the events surrounding it as generic as possible.

The younger scientists, a more diverse groups in every way that a group can be, pushed back hard. The available evidence on Saturday was that their side had carried the day. Given the fact that, for example, Scott Pruitt, who took dictation from oil companies when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, is now running the EPA, they could hardly have lost. More than a few signs reminded the current president* that, without science, he would be as bald as a billiard ball.

Generally, though, there was more than a little sadness on all sides that it ever had come to this, that a country born out of experimentation had lost its faith in its own true creation story, that a country founded by curious, courageous people would become so timid about trusting the risks and rewards of science.

Beka Economopoulos runs something called the Natural History Museum, a project that takes her around the country not only educating students on the natural world, but also taking expeditions to places in which environmental damage is severe. “We collaborate with scientists, local community organizations, and museums across the country to address pressing community concerns and global challenges,” she said. “Science has never been apolitical. It’s always been situated within a context. All science is dedicated to pursue truth, but there are decisions made on what kind of science gets funded and what doesn’t, what kinds of questions get asked.

“The goal of science is not the popularization of knowledge. It’s the pursuit of truth. Scientists look to obliterate existing knowledge by finding something beyond it. Copernicus, Galileo, Rachel Carson, these are scientists that disrupted the status quo but, we look back at them now, and we see that they advanced humanity and the world we live in.”

When the speeches were done, all those people who’d hung in there through the rain walked up the wide boulevards past all the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in the 1840’s at the bequest of an Englishman named James Smithson. “I then bequeath the whole of my property… to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men,” Smithson’s will read. As they walked past the buildings founded out of Smithson’s generosity, you wondered in the mist and rain why it all seemed so much like archaeology now.

On-The-Job Training — Jeff Shesol in The New Yorker on learning how to be president.

“There’s just something about this job as President . . .” George W. Bush observed last week, in an interview with NPR. “You think one thing going in and then the pressures of the job or the realities of the world, you know, are different than you thought.” Bush wasn’t reminiscing about his own Presidency; he was “opining,” he said, about the current one. The reality that Bush had in mind—the one that he hopes President Trump will embrace—is that it is in America’s national interest “to be allies with Mexico and not alienate Mexico.”

Trump, of course, has invested a great deal of energy in denying that particular reality—along with many others, from the existence of climate change to the role of Russian meddling in last year’s Presidential election. Yet, in recent weeks, Trump has conceded that he might, in fact, have been wrong about a thing or two, and now stands corrected. “It turns out” and “nobody knew” are two of the signal phrases by which Trump indicates that an epiphany has arrived: that health-care policy is “so complicated,” or that North Korea is not a Chinese client state. “After listening [to President Xi Jinping, of China] for ten minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. Never mind the obviousness of these statements, or Trump’s weird guilelessness in presenting them as insights; they are being received, by some, as signs that Trump is growing in office. “I think President Trump is learning the job,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said last week.

Learning the job, in fairness, is a big task for any new President. “Regardless of his prior training, nothing he has done will have prepared him for all the facets of that job,” Richard Neustadt, the great scholar of the American Presidency, wrote in “Presidential Power,” his influential study, in 1960. All Presidents, he argued, enter office ignorant, innocent, and arrogant—liabilities it can take two, three, or even six years for them to overcome. Some never do. Neustadt saw “a certain rhythm” in the Presidential learning process, and, indeed, in most cases, it follows a well-worn path: the chaotic cram session of the transition; the headiness and disappointments of the first year; the midterm elections in the second (a “shellacking” of the President’s party, as Barack Obama described it in 2010, tends to dispel any lingering arrogance); and, of course, the crises—domestic and foreign—that come without warning. The education of a President is episodic, driven by events. The results, as we know, are uneven. They depend not only on fate but on the answers to three basic questions: what are the “particulars of [a President’s] ignorance,” in Neustadt’s phrase; does he have the humility to acknowledge them; and does he have the capacity—political, moral, intellectual—to address them?

John F. Kennedy faced all these questions. He entered the White House well prepared despite his youth: he had served fourteen years on Capitol Hill, had commanded, with distinction, a Navy torpedo boat during the Second World War, and had spent the better part of his life studying and exercising power. Yet, during his first few months as President, his particular ignorance emerged: an excess of trust in the C.I.A. and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who convinced him, despite his doubts, to approve an invasion of Communist Cuba by a brigade of exiles. Kennedy hesitated; he asked tough questions of his briefers, but, in the end, he acceded, taken in by their optimism. The instant and utter failure of the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, in April, 1961, filled Kennedy with self-doubt and self-blame. “It is a hell of a way to learn things,” he said over lunch with James Reston, of the Times, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. But he did learn things, and soon changed things, as well: he not only replaced the leaders of the C.I.A. but also, from that point forward, regarded intelligence estimates and military plans with far greater skepticism. The historian Robert Dallek, in his biography of J.F.K., writes that Kennedy saw his missteps as “object lessons in how to be more effective. His resolve stood him in good stead: he managed coming crises”—most significantly, the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year—“with greater skill.”

Bill Clinton, too, stumbled out of the gate. “Clinton terrified me,” one of his policy advisers, Bill Galston, later confessed, “because he almost always knew a good deal more about the subject, or at least some aspect of the subject, than you did.” Yet the disorder of the White House during Clinton’s first year—the famously long meetings that circled an issue but never really resolved it—raised the question of whether his intellect was always an asset. Clinton had a lot to learn in a hurry: about managing (and allowing himself to be managed by) the White House staff; about the hostility of the press corps and the snobbery of the Washington establishment; about the ideological stalemate in Congress; and, not least, about U.S. leadership in a shifting, often perplexing, post-Cold War world. Anthony Lake, his national-security adviser, and Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, urged Clinton to get more engaged in the foreign-policy process and to conduct himself as Commander-in-Chief. “It took a while for Clinton to do the commander bit, which is to say issuing orders crisply,” Lake recalled in an oral-history interview. “It’s in the little things.” It was also in the big things: in August, 1995, after two years of discussion and delay, the Clinton Administration decided to act against Serbian aggression in Bosnia, and led a successful NATO bombing campaign. By 1996, Clinton was more sure of his footing on the global stage. The Times—which had been quite critical of Clinton’s conduct of foreign policy—endorsed his bid for reëlection, noting that he was now “regarded internationally as a leader with a sophisticated grasp of a superpower’s obligation to help the world manage its conflicts and economic contests.”

What is Trump’s particular ignorance? It is not a stretch to say that Trump knows less about policy, history, the workings of government, and world affairs than any of the men who preceded him as President. Trump’s ignorance sends historians and commentators scrambling for sufficient adverbs: to Daniel Bell of Princeton, Trump is “abysmally” ignorant; to Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, he is “militant[ly]” so. “Proudly” is another popular one. Last summer, Trump told the Washington Post that he doesn’t need to read much because he makes great decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense.” The problem is not just what Trump doesn’t know; there is an expanding, alternative universe of things he imagines or insists to be true, from his claim that “millions” of illegal immigrants gave Hillary Clinton her victory in the popular vote to his charge that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. “He has made himself the stooge, the mark, for every crazy blogger, political quack, racial theorist, foreign leader or nutcase peddling a story that he might repackage to his benefit as a tweet, an appointment, an executive order or a policy,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote earlier this month. Trump is somehow both credulous and cynical; if he were “mugged by reality,” in the old, conservative cliché, he would pin it on Obama, or perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This is not to say that Trump is incapable of learning in office. His recent changes of tone, opinion, and direction—on the importance of NATO, for example, or U.S.-China relations—might be signs that his thinking is evolving. They could also be tactical moves, or head-fakes, or further evidence that—unmoored from any core convictions—he is easily swayed by certain advisers. Whatever the case, it is one thing for Trump to acquaint himself with reality; it is another thing to know what to do about it. The singular burden of the Presidency is not merely to acknowledge obvious facts; it is, as Neustadt wrote, to determine a course of action “when conventional wisdom fails, the experts disagree and confusion dominates.” It turns out this job is not so easy.

So Nice To Have You Back Where You Belong — Ben Brantley reviews the revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler.

The pinnacle of fine dining in New York these days can’t be found in a Michelin-starred restaurant, though it will probably cost you just as much. No, you’ll have to get yourself and your wide-open wallet to the Shubert Theater, where the savory spectacle of Bette Midler eating turns out to be the culinary event of the year.

Ms. Midler — who opened in the title role of “Hello, Bette!,” I mean “Hello, Dolly!,” on Thursday night — not only knows how to make a meal out of a juicy part; she knows how to make a meal out of a meal. In the second act of this exceedingly bright and brassy revival, Ms. Midler can be found sitting alone at a table, slowly and deliberately polishing off the remnants of an expensive dinner, from a turkey bone dipped in gravy to a multitude of dumplings, while the rest of the cast freezes in open-mouthed amazement.

Ms. Midler brings such comic brio — both barn-side broad and needlepoint precise — to the task of playing with her food that I promise you it stops the show. Then again, pretty much everything Ms. Midler does stops the show. As for that much anticipated moment when she puts on fire-engine red plumes and sequins to lead a cakewalk of singing waiters, well, let’s just hope that this show’s producers have earthquake insurance.

Back on a Broadway stage in a book musical for the first time (can it be?) since “Fiddler on the Roof” half a century ago, Ms. Midler is generating a succession of seismic responses that make Trump election rallies look like Quaker prayer meetings. Her audiences, of course, are primed for Ms. Midler to give them their money’s worth in Jerry Zaks’s revival of this 1964 portrait of a human steamroller out to land a rich husband in 19th-century New York. The show was a scalper’s delight from the moment tickets went on sale.

But Ms. Midler isn’t coasting on the good will of theatergoers who remember her as the queen of 1980s movie comedies or as the bawdy earth goddess of self-satirizing revues from the ’70s onward. As the center and raison d’être of this show, which also features David Hyde Pierce in a springtime-fresh cartoon of the archetypal grumpy old man, Ms. Midler works hard for her ovations, while making you feel that the pleasure is all hers. In the process she deftly shoves the clamorous memories of Carol Channing (who created the role on Broadway) and Barbra Streisand (in the 1969 film) at least temporarily into the wings.

The show as a whole — which has been designed by Santo Loquasto to resemble a bank of Knickerbocker-themed, department store Christmas windows — could benefit from studying how its star earns her laughs and our love. Playing the pushiest of roles, the endlessly enterprising matchmaker Dolly Levi, Ms. Midler never pushes for effect. Her every bit of shtick has been precisely chosen and honed, and rather than forcing it down our throats, she makes us come to her to admire it.

Much of the rest of Mr. Zaks’s production charges at us like a prancing elephant, festooned in shades of pink. This is true of the hot pastels of Mr. Loquasto’s sets and costumes, and of Warren Carlyle’s athletic golden-age-of-musicals choreography, which is both expert and exhausting.

When an onstage laugh is called for, it comes out as a deafening cackle or a guffaw, which is then stretched and repeated. Double takes, grins and grimaces are magnified into crushing largeness, while the chase sequences bring to mind slap-happy Blake Edwards comedies. Even reliably charming performers like Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin, who play the plot’s supporting lovers (with Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein as their second bananas), seem under the impression they’re in a Mack Sennett farce.

My audience couldn’t have been more tickled by these hard-sell tactics, which hew closely to Gower Champion’s original staging. A tone of sunny desperation isn’t out of keeping with what seems to be this production’s escapist mission, which is to deliver nostalgia with an exclamation point.

Featuring a book by Michael Stewart and a tenaciously wriggling earworm of a score by Jerry Herman (given gleaming orchestral life here), “Hello, Dolly!” is a natural vehicle for rose-colored remembrance. It was adapted from Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” which grew out of his “The Merchant of Yonkers,” itself adapted from an 1842 Austrian reworking of an 1835 American one-acter.

With its folksy wisdom and air of life-affirming wonder, Wilder’s script translated fluently into the hyperbole of a big song-and-dance show, which spoke (loudly) not only of a more innocent age of American history but also of a time when musicals were upbeat spectacles, with outsize stars to match. (Ms. Channing was succeeded by a cavalcade of divas, from Ethel Merman to Pearl Bailey.) Don’t forget that “Hello, Dolly!” opened just two months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when the United States felt anything but united.

The genius of casting Ms. Midler as Dolly, a widow who decides to rejoin life by marrying the rich and curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder (Mr. Pierce), is that she built her career on making nostalgia hip. Even when she was sassing and strutting for the gay boys at the Continental Baths in her youth (when the original “Hello, Dolly!” was still on the boards), she was channeling entertainers from the days of burlesque.

With Ms. Midler, such hommages were never merely camp. She exuded bone-deep affection and respect for vaudeville stylings, in which impeccably controlled artifice became a conduit for sentimentality as well as rowdy humor. That affinity pervades every aspect of her Dolly, which is less a fluid performance than a series of calculated gestures that somehow coalesce into a seamless personality.

Consider, for starters, her hydraulic walk, made up of short, chugging steps. (A real train materializes for the big “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” number, but Ms. Midler is the real locomotive wonder.) Or her take-charge New Yawk accent, spiced with the insinuating inflections of Sophie Tucker. Or her stylized collapse into exhaustion in the middle of the title song.

Without stripping gears, she makes fast switches from explosive comedy to a sober emotionalism that never cloys. (Her pop hits, you may remember, include the weepy “Wind Beneath My Wings.”) And her final scenes with Mr. Pierce, who delivers a beautifully drawn caricature (and is rewarded with a solo that was cut from the original), may leave you with tears in your eyes without your quite understanding why.

Ms. Midler’s talents have never included a conventionally pretty voice. Yet when she rasps out the anthem “Before the Parade Passes By,” you hear her voice as that of a nightingale. And when she hikes up her period skirts to shuffle her feet, she gives the impression she’s dancing up a storm.

She’s not, of course. (Her kicks in her big numbers are only from the knees.) But a great star performance is at least 50 percent illusion, conjured by irresistible will power and cunning. Ms. Midler arranges her component parts with the seductive insistence with which Dolly Levi arranges other people’s lives.

After two acts of fending off Dolly’s charms, Horace finds himself proclaiming, in happy defeat, “Wonderful woman!” Nobody is about to argue with him. [Photo by Sarah Krulwich/New York Times]

Doonesbury — Action Figure.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Calling Them Out

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wants to see how many of his fellow senators believe in science.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday he will allow the Senate to vote on an amendment asking if they agree that climate change is impacting the planet.

At his weekly press briefing, McConnell said “nobody is blocking any amendments” to legislation that would approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The GOP leader had promised to allow an open amendment process on the Keystone bill.

But a measure proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had raised questions about whether he would stick to that commitment.

The Sanders measure asks whether lawmakers agree with the overwhelming consensus of scientists who say climate change is impacting the planet and is worsened by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

Democrats believe the measure could be a tough vote for some Republicans, particularly GOP senators running for reelection in 2016 in states carried by President Obama in 2012.

As Booman notes, this would be a good time to get the Senate on the record for other such controversial points of science, such as whether or not launching rockets into space might hurt the angels.

What I want to hear are the reasons some senators come up with for voting down this amendment.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Speaking Of The Stupid Party

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal famously noted that the Republicans have to stop being the stupid party.  To that end, he keeps providing examples.

At a prayer breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor this morning, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said the Obama administration is filled to the brim with “science deniers” who are “holding our economy hostage” by not harnessing every available domestic energy resource.

Yeah, this from a guy who thinks the jury is still out on Jesus vs. Darwin.  While he acknowledges he’s not an evolutionary biologist, he believes mythology should compete with science so students can make up their own minds.  That’s why he’s opposed to Common Core, which he once supported until he found out it was on the Tea Party hit list.

Well, he never did say that the GOP has to stop being the craven party.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Rising Tide

Chances are pretty good that within less than a hundred years, the place where I’m sitting right now will either be under water or right on the edge of the ocean.

I live about a quarter of a mile from the Atlantic Ocean in a suburb south of Miami.  According to overwhelming scientific evidence, this entire area will become submerged due the rising ocean because of climate change.  It’s not just speculation; it’s a fact and signs are already being seen in some of the more vulnerable coastal areas like Miami Beach.

The question isn’t just what can be done about it; it’s more fundamental than that.  It’s getting people to acknowledge that it’s happening.  The scary thing about that is that there are people who appear to be otherwise intelligent enough to grasp the reality but refuse to do so because of political pressure or sheer denialism.

Most of Florida’s senior politicians – in particular, Senator Marco Rubio, former governor Jeb Bush and current governor Rick Scott, all Republican climate-change deniers – have refused to act or respond to warnings of people like Wanless or Harlem or to give media interviews to explain their stance, though Rubio, a Republican party star and a possible 2016 presidential contender, has made his views clear in speeches. “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy,” he said recently. Miami is in denial in every sense, it would seem. Or as Wanless puts it: “People are simply sticking their heads in the sand. It is mind-boggling.”

Not surprisingly, Rubio’s insistence that his state is no danger from climate change has brought him into conflict with local people. Philip Stoddard, the mayor of South Miami, has a particularly succinct view of the man and his stance. “Rubio is an idiot,” says Stoddard. “He says he is not a scientist so he doesn’t have a view about climate change and sea-level rise and so won’t do anything about it. Yet Florida’s other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, is holding field hearings where scientists can tell people what the data means. Unfortunately, not enough people follow his example. And all the time, the waters are rising.”

Mayor Stoddard’s pithy statement regarding Mr. Rubio’s denial of climate change captured a few headlines, but it points out the most troubling aspect of this situation.  It’s not that Mr. Rubio has a disagreement with the evidence or the conclusions reached.  He’s already made it quite clear that he’s not a scientist.  His problem is that he doesn’t believe in the overall concept that the climate is actually changing in spite of overwhelming evidence.  He’s provided no proof to back up his claim; he’s just not a believer, and even if he did believe it, nothing we can do can stop it.

That is a view that is meant to end the discussion, not carry it forward or find remedy.  It’s the equivalent of slamming the door shut, and thereby proving Mayor Stoddard’s point.

Marco Rubio plans to run for president, either in 2016 or 2020.  The idea of having someone in a leadership role who simply refuses to acknowledge reality should be enough to put an end to that kind of ambition by voters who would rather not have to swim to the polls.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Science Class

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) thinks “reparative therapy” for gays works despite the overwhelming evidence that it is nothing more than a cruel hoax foisted upon the world by cranks and crackpots who think being gay is a choice.  This is after he compared being gay to being alcoholic.  (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)

Grilled on this stand on CNBC yesterday, the governor admitted that he had no idea what he was talking about.

Earlier this month, the Texas Republican Party adopted at its convention a policy endorsing “reparative therapy” for gays and lesbians who seek to change sexual orientation through counseling.

Asked if he believes in that, Perry said in a “Squawk Box” interview: “I don’t know. We’ll leave that to the psychologists and the doctors.”

As Steve Benen catalogs, Mr. Perry joins a bunch of Republicans who admit that they’re not a scientist or a doctor but that doesn’t stop them from holding forth on everything from climate change to the age of the Earth.

It’s one thing to admit that you don’t know something and are willing to learn.  It’s entirely something else to be proud of your ignorance.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Now He’s A Doctor

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has already stated that he doesn’t know a lot about earth science (“I’m not a scientist, man”), but that didn’t stop him from holding forth on the subject of climate change.  But now he thinks he’s an M.D. and a specialist in fertilization.

Marco Rubio says pro-choice Democrats who criticize him for doubting man-made climate change should be questioned on why they support abortion when “it’s a proven fact” that “human life begins at conception.”

Okay, let’s indulge in a little unpacking of this clear attempt on the part of Mr. Rubio to distract attention away from the fact that he’s clearly out of his depth when he’s talking about climate change and he is now scrambling to get back on the safe ground of bumper-sticker science (“Oh, look at the Felis catus!”).

First, the term “proven fact” is redundant.  Second, saying “life begins at conception” is deceptive because while an egg and a sperm may join and start another human being through cell division, a new being isn’t on the way until pregnancy begins.  (This is not me, he who had to re-take Grade 10 biology class, saying that.  It’s from a real scientist.)  Pregnancy doesn’t begin until implantation, and that doesn’t happen the instant the egg and the sperm get it on.  One does not necessarily follow the other.  (By the way, the egg and the sperm are both alive when they meet, so your best bet is to say that “life changes at conception.”)

Finally, isn’t it a tad ironic that someone who is quoting science’s “proven facts” about something he agrees with can still harbor doubts about the age of the Earth?  He must have gotten a degree in sycophancy at Psychotic State.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sunday Reading

The Champion — Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic on the legacy of African-American politics.

Last week The New Yorker ran a lengthy profile of Barack Obama, by David Remnick, in which you can hear the president’s opinions on everything from marijuana legalization to war to racism. Obama is as thoughtful as ever, and I expect that admiration for his thoughtfulness will grow as the ages pile upon us. I have tried to get my head around what he represents. Two years ago, I would have said that whatever America’s roots in white supremacy, the election of a black president is a real thing, worthy of celebration, a sign of actual progress. I would have pointed out that you should not expect a black head of state in any other Western country any time soon, and that this stands as singular accolade in the long American democratic tradition. Today, I’m less certain about national accolades. I’m not really sure that a writer—whose whole task is the attempt to see clearly—can afford such attachments.

More interesting to me is why this happened. If you begin from the proposition that African-Americans are fundamentally American, in a way that the Afro-French are not; and that America is, itself, a black country in a way that the other European countries are not, Barack Obama’s election strikes you somewhat differently. African-American politics is literally as old as American politics, as old as Crispus Attucks shot down for his nascent country. One of the earliest and bloodiest proving grounds for “Western” democratic ideals was Gettysburg. The line that saved the Union, that ensured that “government of the people, for the people, by the people, shall not perish from this earth” was marked by the house of the black farmer Abraham Brian. On that Brian property lived the great Mag Palm, currently lost to our memory, who fought off man-catchers determined to reduce her to peonage.

The first African-American to be nominated for president was Frederick Douglass, a biracial black man of exceptional gifts who dreamed of his estranged father as surely as the present occupant of the White House, perhaps even in this day, dreams of his. The last black Southerner to serve in Congress, before this country assented to the desecration of its own Constitution, was George Henry White, who did not leave in despair but in awesome prophecy:

This is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people—full of potential force.

And come again, we have.

All Together wit Pete Seeger — Emily Greenhouse remembers the impact he had on her family.

After the Second World War, my grandparents married and moved to Long Island, and my grandfather opened a dry-cleaning shop. On his delivery route, he would look for customers who received the right kind of magazines and then slip fliers underneath their doors: Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, the March on Washington, Ban the Bomb, Stop the War in Vietnam. That’s how my grandparents made new friends. They were meetings people—Grace Paley people, union people. They brought a baby in a stroller to the Rosenbergs’ funeral. Some winters before my grandfather died, he joined in a protest against the Iraq War, in Washington, D.C. After standing for four hours in fifteen-degree weather, he came down with pneumonia. I thought this was heroic, but for him it was normal. He was a Seeger man: he would not be moved or deterred.

The sad morning we learned that Seeger was gone, I spoke to Rob Rosenthal, a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University, and his son, Sam, who recently edited the book “Pete Seeger: In His Own Words.” They met Seeger when he replied to an ad that the elder Rosenthal had placed in the Nation. “He was never pessimistic,” Rosenthal said. “He always thought that humans would get it together.” He added: “When you look at the grand movements of the twentieth century, he was involved in them all (the women’s movement most peripherally). We may think now, ‘Wow, we’re so messed up.’ But he travelled through the South in the thirties, he saw the Hudson cleaned up—a huge, huge thing. He was realistic about how difficult all this was.”

Seeger got in at the ground level—on the union movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the environmentalist movement—and spoke directly to those there. Gabriel Winant, a scholar of labor history, described how Seeger, with a song like “Miner’s Lifeguard,” showed coal miners that they were like sailors—widely perceived as the original modern workers—even if their work was out of the boss’s view. And that, like the sailors, the miners were stronger together.

Sam Rosenthal told me that it was hard to imagine Seeger’s perspective. “He didn’t feel the weight of history the way we did,” he said. “It was staggering to hear him talk about certain things—going to this huge historic march, hanging out with Guthrie or Lead Belly. In the next breath, he would start talking about his neighbor down the road who grew tomatoes.”

It’s Debatable — Sean McElwee and Abigail Salvatore in Salon argue that scientists shouldn’t debate Creationists.

Bill Nye and Ken Ham will be debating creationism on Feb. 4, and it’s a bad idea for both scientists and Christians. Ham’s young-earth creationism represents the distinct tendency of American Christian fundamentalists to reject science and use their religion to defend economic ideas, environmental degradation and anti-science extremism. But these views aren’t actually inherent in Christianity — they’ve been imposed on the biblical text by politically motivated and theologically inept readers. The solution is not anti-theism but better theological and scientific awareness.

The vast majority of right-wing Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. are evangelicals, followers of an offshoot of Protestantism. Protestantism is based on the premise that truth about God and his relationship with the world can be discovered by individuals, regardless of their level of education or social status. Because of its roots in a schism motivated by a distrust of religious experts (priests, bishops, the pope), Protestantism today is still highly individualistic. In the United States, Protestantism has been mixed with the similarly individualistic American frontier mythos, fomenting broad anti-intellectualism.

Richard Hofstadter’s classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” perfectly summarizes the American distaste for intellectualism and how egalitarian sentiments became intertwined with religion. He and Walter Lippmann point to the first wave of opposition to Darwinian evolution theory, led by William Jennings Bryan, as the quintessential example of the convergence of anti-intellectualism, the egalitarian spirit and religion. Bryan worried about the conflation of Darwinian evolution theory and capitalist economics that allowed elites to declare themselves superior to lower classes. He felt that the teaching of evolution challenged popular democracy: “What right have the evolutionists — a relatively small percentage of the population — to teach at public expense a so-called scientific interpretation of the Bible when orthodox Christians are not permitted to teach an orthodox interpretation of the Bible?” He notes further, “The one beauty of the word of God, is that it does not take an expert to understand it.”

This American distrust of experts isn’t confined to religion. It explains the popularity of books like “Wrong” by David Freedman (a book that purports  to show “why experts are wrong”) that take those snobbish “experts” down a peg.  The delightfully cynical H.L. Mencken writes,

The agents of such quackeries gain their converts by the simple process of reducing the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.  Unless a man is already equipped with a considerable knowledge of chemistry, bacteriology and physiology, no one can ever hope to make him understand what is meant by the term anaphylaxis, but any man, if only he be idiot enough, can grasp the whole theory of chiropractic in twenty minutes.

Thus, an American need not understand economics to challenge Keynes, nor possess a PhD to question climate change, nor to have read Darwin to declare his entire book a fraud. One need not read journals, for Gladwell suffices, and Jenny McCarthy’s personal anecdotes trump the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences.

Doonesbury — Keeping it real.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Science Warrior

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, is on a mission.

He takes on those who would demand that the public schools teach alternative theories of evolution and the origins of the earth — most famously, in a video clip from the site BigThink.com that has been viewed some five million times. In it, he flatly tells adult viewers that “if you want to deny evolution and live in your world — in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe — that’s fine. But don’t make your kids do it, because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future.”

In any given week, you’re likely to see Mr. Nye, 57, somewhere on television, calmly countering the arguments made by people like Marc Morano, the former Republican Senate staff member whose industry-funded organization, climatedepot.com, disputes the increasingly well-understood connection between rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and warming. In an exchange several months ago on “Piers Morgan Tonight” on CNN, Mr. Morano denied that warming is occurring, and scoffed that Mr. Nye’s arguments were “the level of your daily horoscope.”

Mr. Nye quietly rebutted his opponent with the gravity of scientific consensus. “This will be the hottest two decades in recorded history,” he said. “I’ve got to disagree with you.”

That reminds me of the old joke: Never insult a scientist; he may hand you a hot retort.  [Rimshot.]

Monday, January 28, 2013

Annals of Education

A Montana legislator is pushing a bill in the state house to reintroduce creationism to the state’s public school science classes.

Rep. Clayton Fiscus, R-Billings, said evolution isn’t settled science and called it a “monumental leap” to believe it is true. His bill would allow teachers – if they want – to address perceived weaknesses in evolution studies in the classroom.

“This is just a bill to instruct what we have presently in the science on the origins of life,” Fiscus said. “We should teach what we do know. We should also teach what we don’t know.”

Yeah, evolution is a “monumental leap,” whereas the bit about the talking snake is a proven scientific fact.  Got it.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Reading

Roe v. Wade at Forty — Jill LePore of The New Yorker looks back at the legacy of the Supreme Court decision after forty years, and looks ahead.

Looking back, it seems clear that the abortion-rights movement embraced the rhetoric of privacy at the cost of making an argument about equality. National political figures rarely use the word “poverty” any more, but the Guttmacher Institute this year reports that among poor women, the rate of unwanted pregnancy is five times higher than for wealthier women: four in ten women who have abortions are poor. The Institute, founded in 1968, took Guttmacher’s name in 1977. Its mission is to advance “sexual and reproductive health and rights.” But the political discussion of abortion involves more talk about rights than about health. That’s one problem. Another is that most of that talk has been coming from the right. The assertion of a constitutional right to privacy has been answered by the assertion of fetal rights, a claim that challenges not only Roe but also several forms of contraception and, possibly, Griswold itself. Guttmacher’s two key ideas—that contraception would replace abortion and that public health would trump politics—seem, in retrospect, regrettably naïve.

In 2011, when I was researching an article for the magazine about Planned Parenthood, one of the people with whom I talked was Reva Siegel, and one of the most remarkable things she said had to do with how effectively the backlash narrative has intimidated the left. “The right has raised a generation of people who understand that courts matter and who will vote on that basis and can be mobilized to vote on that basis and who are willing to pay political costs for votes,” Siegel said. “This is completely lacking on the other side.” Law students and young lawyers, Siegel believes, are convinced that Roe is the source of the polarization of Americans politics. In response, those on the left “have an inhibition about using litigation for social-change purposes,” while appeals to the courts are “the bread and butter of the right, whether it’s campaign finance or guns or affirmative action.”

If so, Roe’s legacy has hardly begun.

Dangerous Mixture — Puneet Opal, MD, PhD, writes in The Atlantic on the perils of treating science like a political weapon.

We in democracies should make every effort to promote the objectivity of scientists so they can seek and communicate the best approximation of truth in the natural world, using their training and resources. And the approximation, is only because we will never know reality, but we can get amazingly close with scientific evidence and logical thinking.

Political choices can be made after the evidence is presented, but the evidence should stand for what it is. If the evidence itself is rejected by politicians — as is currently going on — then the ignorance of the political class should indeed be exposed, and all threats resisted.

This should be the case regardless of where across the political spectrum the ignorance is coming from. This might seem to be a diatribe against conservatives. But really this criticism is aimed at all unscientific thinking.

Just to be sure, there are a number on the left who have their own dogmatic beliefs; the most notable are unscientific theories with regard to the dangers of vaccinations, genetically modified produce, or nuclear energy.

It is also important to note that there have been exceptional Republican champions of science. In the U.S. Senate, the late Arlen Spector and in Congress, John Porte were two who stood out, lauded by scientists as advocates for scientific inquiry.

In other words, threats to scientific thinking can come from any quarter. What must be preserved is the pursuit of science away from irrational dogma. In that sense scientists should be completely nonpartisan. After all, the universe is what it is. The hurricanes, the flu epidemics, indeed all of reality does not really care about our political affiliations, but we distance ourselves from scientific thinking at our own peril.

Dear Abby — Rick Perlstein of The Nation has an appreciation of the late Pauline Phillips — “Dear Abby” — who passed away this week.

In August of 1980 the director of the ballet company of which Ron Reagan, son of the presidential candidate, was a member for some reason felt moved to put out a statement that Reagan and all the other men in his group had “nice girlfriends.”

In the notion that ballet dancers must be gay, and that this was a shamefully horrible thing, he spoke to a fear shared by Ron Reagan’s father, who when Ron dropped out of college in 1977 to become a dancer immediately phoned up Gene Kelly to ask if that meant he was gay. Later, his adopted son Michael helped him process a disturbing discovery: he caught Ron with a woman in his and Nancy’s (gross!) bed. Said Michael, “The bad news is that you came home early and you caught him. The good news is that you found out he isn’t gay.”

“Dear Abby” had a different view. Of the ballet director, a reader wrote in to decry the “sad commentary on our society’s attitude toward human sexuality that such a statement was made at all. Implicity in that announcement were the following erroneous assumptions: 1) That male participation in ballet requires lengthy justification lest it threaten our traditional views of masculinity; 2) that all male ballet dancers are suspect and therefore proof of their masculinity is required—i.e., having girlfriends; 3) that without proof of their manliness, people might think they were gay; and 4) that being gay is bad.”

The reader asked Abby if she had anything to add. She didn’t. She just wrote, “No. Right on!” (And: “Readers? Write on.” She was democratic that way.) The same column (August 20, 1980) printed a letter of thanks “for your explanation as to why the ERA is a national need,” noting that still, in 1980, the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s sufferage was still ritually voted down every year in the Mississippi legislature.

Good thing Mississippi newspaper readers could read Dear Abby. Good thing Mormons could, too; indeed the link to the August 1980 column above is to the Deseret News—Salt Lake City’s Mormon-owned newspaper. Abby blazed trails for liberalism in the most reactionary precincts. People trusted her that way.

Doonesbury — After-market options.

Friday, January 18, 2013

You’re Paying For That Mythology

Following up on my post about Zack Kopplin’s fight against teaching creationism in Louisiana public schools, the state is still sending public funding to charter schools that insist Jesus rode a dinosaur.

I first began investigating creationist school vouchers as my part of my fight against creationism in my home state of Louisiana. Over the past few months, I’ve learned creationist vouchers aren’t just a Louisiana problem—they’re an American problem. School vouchers are, as James Gill recently wrote in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “the answer to a creationist’s prayer.”

Liberty Christian School, in Anderson, Indiana, has field trips to the Creation Museum and students learn from the creationist A Beka curriculum. Kingsway Christian School, in Avon, Indiana, also has Creation Museum field trips. Mansfield Christian School, in Ohio, teaches science through the creationist Answers in Genesis website, run by the founder of the Creation Museum. The school’s Philosophy of Science page says, “the literal view of creation is foundational to a Biblical World View.” All three of these schools, and more than 300 schools like them, are receiving taxpayer money.

So far, I have documented 310 schools, in nine states and the District of Columbia that are teaching creationism, and receiving tens of millions of dollars in public money through school voucher programs.

By law, charter schools must be afforded the same funding opportunities through grants as all public schools, and all non-public schools are eligible to apply for federal funding as long as they meet certain criteria.  One of those should be that they teach a curriculum that is based on sound educational principles, including knowing the difference between science and mythology.

I don’t have a problem with a school teaching creationism as long as they put it in the same course along with other works of fiction.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Smart Kid

Read the story about Zack Kopplin, who, at the age of 14 in 2008, took on the creationists who were re-writing the science curriculum in Louisiana’s public schools and won.

For Zack Kopplin, it all started back in 2008 with the passing of the Louisiana Science Education Act. The bill made it considerably easier for teachers to introduce creationist textbooks into the classroom. Outraged, he wrote a research paper about it for a high school English class. Nearly five years later, the 19-year-old Kopplin has become one of the fiercest — and most feared — advocates for education reform in Louisiana.

[…]

It was during the process to adopt a new life science textbook in 2010 that creationists barraged Louisiana’s State Board of Education with complaints about the evidence-based science texts. Suddenly, it appeared that they were going to be successful in throwing out science textbooks.

“This was a pivotal moment for me,” Kopplin told io9. “I had always been a shy kid and had never spoken out before — I found myself speaking at a meeting of an advisory committee to the State Board of Education and urging them to adopt good science textbooks — and we won.” The LSEA still stood, but at least the science books could stay.

Good for him; good for education; good for science, and good for reason.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Back On Earth

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) does some creative backtracking.

After dabbling in creationism earlier this month, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., clarified that he does believe that scientists know the Earth is “at least 4.5 billion years old.”

“There is no scientific debate on the age of the earth. I mean, it’s established pretty definitively, it’s at least 4.5 billion years old,” Rubio told Mike Allen of Politico. ”I was referring to a theological debate, which is a pretty healthy debate.

“The theological debate is, how do you reconcile with what science has definitively established with what you may think your faith teaches,” Rubio continued. “Now for me, actually, when it comes to the age of the earth, there is no conflict.”

Speaking of creative, that’s some mighty good misremembering of what he actually said when the topic was brought up the last time: “I’m not a scientist, man.”  And tossing it back to the “theological debate” category is a weasely way out of it because in reality, there is no healthy debate among theologians about their creation mythology unless you’re building a theme park in Kentucky.

Our little boy is learning quickly that you can’t talk like a crackpot and expect to be elected anything more than the Tea Party flavor of the month.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Short Takes

Factory fire kills over 100 in Bangladesh.

Egypt’s top judges don’t like President Morsi’s “unprecedented” decrees.

Homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy were robbed over Thanksgiving.

Cops arrest 42 people in a melee after a party in San Jose.

Florida woman arrested for riding a manatee.

“My kingdom for a DNA scan” — Scientists may have found the remains of King Richard III.

 

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Good Old Days

There is an epidemic of whooping cough in Washington state because there have been cutbacks in public funding for healthcare to get preventative care to the population that needs it. Also, there are folks who don’t believe in vaccinating their children because it’s either socialized medicine or because the benevolent sky faerie will take care of them.

This is 2012, not 1912, right? Just checking.

HT to Charlie Pierce.

The Good Old Days

There is an epidemic of whooping cough in Washington state because there have been cutbacks in public funding for healthcare to get preventative care to the population that needs it. Also, there are folks who don’t believe in vaccinating their children because it’s either socialized medicine or because the benevolent sky faerie will take care of them.

This is 2012, not 1912, right? Just checking.

HT to Charlie Pierce.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Shine On

How many of you know that the moon does not emit light but reflects it?

Apparently that’s not only news to some people, but it runs counter to the bible, and Bill Nye the Science Guy raised a few hackles for stating that fact.

As even most elementary-school graduates know, the moon reflects the light of the sun but produces no light of its own.

But don’t tell that to the good people of Waco, who were “visibly angered by what some perceived as irreverence,” according to the Waco Tribune.

Nye was in town to participate in McLennan Community College’s Distinguished Lecture Series. He gave two lectures on such unfunny and adult topics as global warming, Mars exploration, and energy consumption.

But nothing got people as riled as when he brought up Genesis 1:16, which reads: “God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.”

The lesser light, he pointed out, is not a light at all, but only a reflector.

At this point, several people in the audience stormed out in fury. One woman yelled “We believe in God!” and left with three children, thus ensuring that people across America would read about the incident and conclude that Waco is as nutty as they’d always suspected.

Mission accomplished.

HT to BooMan.

Shine On

How many of you know that the moon does not emit light but reflects it?

Apparently that’s not only news to some people, but it runs counter to the bible, and Bill Nye the Science Guy raised a few hackles for stating that fact.

As even most elementary-school graduates know, the moon reflects the light of the sun but produces no light of its own.

But don’t tell that to the good people of Waco, who were “visibly angered by what some perceived as irreverence,” according to the Waco Tribune.

Nye was in town to participate in McLennan Community College’s Distinguished Lecture Series. He gave two lectures on such unfunny and adult topics as global warming, Mars exploration, and energy consumption.

But nothing got people as riled as when he brought up Genesis 1:16, which reads: “God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.”

The lesser light, he pointed out, is not a light at all, but only a reflector.

At this point, several people in the audience stormed out in fury. One woman yelled “We believe in God!” and left with three children, thus ensuring that people across America would read about the incident and conclude that Waco is as nutty as they’d always suspected.

Mission accomplished.

HT to BooMan.