Category Archives: Random Blogging

A Tale of Two Worldviews…In Two Installments

On Monday, I spoke to the Greenwood Rotary. Unlike my usual topics, I’d been asked to expand on the theme of a recent IBJ column I’d written, on the costs of rejecting science. In today’s post, I’m sharing the talk (apologies for the length). Tomorrow, I’ll share reactions. (Hint: Earth is doomed.)

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Recently, I devoted my IBJ column to the assault on science, and the costs—both financial and social—of ignoring what science tells us. Most people who deny or reject science are people who feel threatened when empirical evidence conflicts with their particular prejudices or worldviews. Rather than modify their worldview, they reject the evidence.

What has been called the War on Science is one of the few bipartisan assaults of an unbelievably partisan age—it is being waged by people who have very little else in common, either politically or philosophically. There are business interests, like tobacco companies and Big Oil, who see a particular scientific consensus as a threat to their bottom line; there are “back to nature” liberal activists who are suspicious of GMO foods; there are some religious folks—certainly not all—who see science as incompatible with belief in their particular version of God; and there are conspiracy theorists who are sure that vaccinating their children is part of some nefarious government plot with which medical scientists are colluding…presumably to enrich pharmaceutical companies.

Let me be clear: These sorts of assaults on the scientific enterprise itself are very different from ongoing debates within the scientific community about methodology, or arguments about the conclusions that can legitimately be drawn from any particular data. Those latter debates both advance our understanding of the world we inhabit, and remind us that all human knowledge is tentative—in scientific jargon, falsifiable.

Falsifiability is what distinguishes science from other kinds of inquiry—it’s what makes science, science. Falsifiability means that a hypothesis can be tested by empirical experiment.  Just because something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; it means that if it is false, then testing, observation or experiment will at some point demonstrate that it is false. All kinds of things can be true without being falsifiable. A woman or a sunset may be beautiful, people may be happy or sad or in love and those statements can absolutely be true. They just aren’t science, because they cannot be empirically proved nor disproved. Similarly, God cannot be dragged into a laboratory and His existence tested. You either believe or you don’t. That’s why religious belief is called faith.

Thorny policy problems arise when we fail to distinguish between science and faith, or science and ideology. Let me just give a few examples:

  • Recently, Bill Nye—the “Science Guy”—debated Ken Ham, a prominent creationist, at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Ham used Genesis and the bible as his sole “evidence” for his rejection of evolution and his belief that the universe is only seven thousand years old. Nye explained that scientific propositions must be “testable” and falsifiable–that reliance on the literal accuracy of scripture is simply not science. That’s the reason that the courts have unanimously ruled that creationism cannot legally be taught in public school science classes. It can be taught in classes on comparative religion, or philosophy, or classes on the history of science, but it can’t be taught as science. As a practical matter, when school boards insert “creation science” in science curricula, they end up spending lots of tax dollars defending and losing the inevitable lawsuit.
  • Religious beliefs aren’t the only motivation for ignoring science—not even close. In my IBJ column, I referenced the debate over the medical and recreational use of marijuana as another example of the way ideology distorts rational policymaking and ignores relevant scientific evidence. Drug warriors insist that marijuana is a “gateway” drug and the cause of multiple health problems, but these are just a different kind of “faith-based” beliefs. Science tells us that dangerous or fatal outcomes from marijuana use are virtually nonexistent. As one scientist wrote: “Two recent reviews examine results from approximately one hundred randomized placebo-controlled trials involving over 6,100 patients with a variety of medical conditions. The results show that marijuana is useful in treating anorexia, nausea and vomiting, glaucoma, irritable bowed disease, muscle spasticity, multiple sclerosis, symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Tourette’s syndrome. It is also useful in providing modest relief of pain. In this latter regard, it seems to reduce chronic pain by about 30 percent, a benefit achieved with fewer serious side effects than encountered with commonly used opiates (codeine, morphine, etc). Thus there is ample evidence to support the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes.”

Estimates put the annual cost of the Drug War at something north of sixty billion dollars a year, much of which is spent on marijuana prohibition. Drug warriors continue to reject the science that distinguishes between marijuana—which is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol—and more dangerous drugs.

  •  Drug warriors tend to come from the political Right. From the political left, there is the growing movement against GMOs–Genetically Modified foods. This is an issue that drives my cousin, a cardiologist and scientist, up the wall. He has written extensively on the subject, pointing out–among other things–that foods made with GMO crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people around the world for more than 15 years with no discernible ill effects; that virtually all processed foods sold in the U.S. contain GMO ingredients; that genetic engineering simply “speeds up” the conventional cross-breeding and hybridization that we humans have done for thousands of years. He also points out that genetic manipulation allows us to produce plants more resistant to insects and disease–which in turn allows us to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides that really are harmful. He also points to the promise of better nutrition for people in third-world countries. The scientific community is solidly in my cousin’s corner on the issue, but that hasn’t slowed down the opposition.
  • Policies built on bad science or rejection of science are often costly, and often create problems, but the consequences of most bad policy decisions pale in comparison to the costs of climate change denial. There are multiple motives driving denialism, and we can talk more about climate change during Q and A, but I just want to make two points: first, there is no real scientific controversy. Something like 99% of the scientific community agrees that climate change is real, that it is occurring, and that human activity is contributing to it. There may be quibbles about the extent to which climate change is anthropogenic—the extent to which our human activities are causing and/or accelerating it—but on the basic premise, scientists are all on the same page. Second, let’s look at the logic. If all of these scientists are right, we clearly have to address the problem, and do so aggressively. But even if they are all wrong, and we attack carbon emissions, provide incentives for clean energy,  promote conservation and take similar steps, the worst case scenario is that we will have cleaned up our air, reduced our reliance on foreign oil, and conserved resources that everyone understands are finite.  Given the stakes, this seems a no-brainer to me.

There are obviously plenty of other examples, but the real question is: What is driving the rejection of science and empirical evidence?

Some is intentional. There was a fascinating article in the LA Times last month titled “The cultural production of ignorance.” It talked about the tobacco industry’s effort to erode public acceptance of the science that showed a link between smoking and various diseases. The chosen tactic wasn’t to “debunk” the science; it was to create doubt by insisting that there was a “controversy” and both sides needed to be heard. That’s same tactic has subsequently been employed by the anti-vaccine folks, the anti-evolution folks and the climate-change deniers. As the article noted, once misinformation—or disinformation—takes root, it becomes very difficult to dislodge. There’s also a growing body of research showing that people who are invested in a particular belief often react to information contrary to the belief by clinging to it more strongly than before, which is a pretty depressing finding.

So, how did we get here? Americans used to have a love affair with science—what happened?

Media bears considerable responsibility. Ironically, in the “information society” we inhabit, it has become easier to propagate ignorance. As issues become more complicated, they also become easier to confuse. And in the place of accuracy–what used to be called “the journalism of verification”–today’s media has substituted “balance.” Rather than objectivity, we get “both” sides of issues that may actually have six “sides” or only one. In place of real reporting, we get stenography–”he said, she said.” As I tell my students, America has a bipolar culture—we frame issues as right or wrong, good or evil. Increasingly, things aren’t so clear-cut. And the fact that so many policies are complicated makes it easier to manufacture controversies and complexities and to muddy the waters.

The biggest culprit may be something I call our civic deficit. Americans as a whole are shockingly ignorant of basic constitutional, economic and scientific principles and definitions.

Let me share an anecdote that illustrates why I am concerned.

When I teach Law and Public Affairs, I begin with the way our particular legal framework limits our policy options, and how “original intent” should be understood to guide our application of Constitutional principles to current conflicts. I usually ask students something like “What do you suppose James Madison thought about porn on the Internet?” Usually, they’ll laugh and then we discuss how Madison’s beliefs about freedom of expression should guide courts faced with contemporary efforts to censor the Internet. But a couple of years ago, when I asked a young woman—a junior in college—that question, she looked at me blankly and asked “Who’s James Madison?”

Let me share with you just a tiny fraction of the available research. Only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Anecdotal surveys such as these, as well as the few formal studies that have been completed on civics, point to what has been called a “civics recession”. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies indicated that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power.  Only 43% of high school seniors could name the two major political parties; only 11% knew the length of a Senator’s term; and only 23% could name the first President of the United States. I could go on and on. Other research has shown equally depressing results for basic economic and scientific knowledge. One scholar reacted to the 2010 NAEP results by worrying that the amount of civic knowledge in this country may be “too low to sustain democratic governance.”

A little over a year ago, I secured a grant and established the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI. My colleagues and I represent different disciplines—law, business, social work, science, religious studies, political science, bioethics and education—because we are painfully aware that all of our disciplines are adversely affected by low civic literacy. Although deficits in civic literacy are widely understood to be corrosive to democratic institutions, scholars have increasingly recognized that such deficits have damaging consequences for fields as diverse as business, science, religion, and public education, as well as for the personal empowerment and agency of individuals.

The Center has a website, an online clearinghouse for research, and in July, we will publish the first issue of a peer-reviewed journal, focused on the causes and consequences of our civic deficit. We are also conducting original research on a large number of questions: we want to identify programs and curricula that have demonstrated effectiveness in producing civically-literate students; we want to know why previous efforts at reform have lacked staying power.  We want to investigate the theorized consequences of civic ignorance. And we want to develop a set of recommendations for basic civic education that can be both implemented and sustained.

Here’s the thing: At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I think the Establishment Clause requires a certain result and you think it requires a different one. What matters is that we both know what the Establishment Clause is, and what value it was meant to protect.

It doesn’t matter whether I think Freedom of the Press extends to bloggers and you disagree. It matters a lot that we both know what Freedom of the Press means, and why it was considered essential to the maintenance of trustworthy government.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican and I’m a Democrat, but it matters a lot that we both know what Nazis and Socialists are, and why the President can’t be both at the same time.

It doesn’t matter if I think the scientific evidence for the safety of GMOs is persuasive and you don’t, but it matters a lot that we both understand what science is and isn’t, and the difference between a scientific theory and our casual use of the term “theory” to mean “best guess.”

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. If I think this is a table and you think it’s a chair, we aren’t going to have a very productive discussion about its use. We don’t need citizens who all agree about the implications of our founding decisions, or who even agree with the decisions themselves. But we desperately need citizens who share an understanding of what those decisions were. We don’t need citizens who agree about economic policies, but we desperately need citizens who understand basic economic principles.

And we desperately need citizens who understand what science is and isn’t.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

Spring in the Hood

It’s spring. Finally!  Friday, I took the day off from the treadmill at NIFS in favor of a walk around my neighborhood–the Old Northside in downtown Indianapolis–and was reminded why I love living downtown.

I used to live in the suburbs. I’m sure my neighbors were nice people, but in the ten plus years I lived in my house, I never met any of them. We’d wave as we turned into our driveways, and a few had children the ages of mine and the kids played together, but that was the sum total of our interactions. The houses were separated by large lots, and we didn’t have sidewalks to stroll, or front porches to sit on, so those venues for conviviality were missing.

Friday, I walked (on sidewalks) to one of the many restaurant/bars within walking distance of my house, to meet my husband for dinner. The scale of the neighborhood is pleasant, with small but adequate lots, and at least a third of the houses I passed are owned by people I know. Several were outside– doing lawn work or just enjoying the beautiful day– and we exchanged greetings as I walked by.

Ours is a pretty diverse neighborhood  (my own short block has whites, blacks,  Latinos, straights and gays) and for most of us, that’s one of its attractions.  A significant number of the houses I walked past still have yard signs demanding the defeat of HJR 3, (the anti-same-sex marriage amendment) despite the fact that the legislative session is over.

One friend, who calls the restoration of his historic house his “100-year-project,”  handed me a tulip from his garden. At the next intersection, I stopped to chat with a lawyer I know (he was picking up dog poop in his meticulously-cared for small yard).

I turned down Alabama Street, and about halfway to my destination saw a University colleague on her front porch with three other neighbors; they were having drinks and snacks and invited me to join them. It was clearly cocktail hour somewhere, so I did; we talked work and politics and waved at other neighbors who passed by, and then I walked on to meet my husband.

Saturday was another beautiful day, and I was out for another walk (my fitbit is a stern taskmaster). I ran into my son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren out for a bike ride. They live in the neighborhood too, and were headed for the Monon Trail that runs a half-block behind my house.

I know that there are people who value having acres of land, who treasure their solitude, are irritated by serendipitous encounters, and who don’t mind driving six miles for a loaf of bread. To each his own. But I absolutely treasure these everyday pleasures of urban life.

Urban neighborhoods–with sidewalks that actually go somewhere–build social capital and connect us to others.

With all due respect, I don’t think those gated communities with their “McMansions” on acre lots do that.

 

Spelling Out the Koch Agenda

Reasonable people who don’t follow politics closely can be forgiven for dismissing Democrats’ focus on the Koch brothers as just a political tactic– not unlike the Republicans’ attacks on George Soros.  They’re all rich and politically active. So what?

Senator Bernie Sanders begs to differ–and so should we.  Sanders points out that the brothers are worth 80 billion dollars (including an increase of 12 billion in the last year alone), and he points to the extent of their involvement in the political process–and the degree to which they have used their enormous resources to misinform and confuse, most recently funding political spots that flat-out lie about the Affordable Care Act, which–along with Medicare and Medicaid– they are intent upon repealing. (I guess when poor people get health care, it offends their peculiar version of justice.)

David Koch ran as the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1980. And Sanders suggests we take a look at the platform on which he ran:

  • “We urge the repeal of federal campaign finance laws, and the immediate abolition of the despotic Federal Election Commission.”
  • “We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.”
  • “We oppose any compulsory insurance or tax-supported plan to provide health services, including those which finance abortion services.”
  • “We also favor the deregulation of the medical insurance industry.”
  • “We favor the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system. Pending that repeal, participation in Social Security should be made voluntary.”
  • “We propose the abolition of the governmental Postal Service. The present system, in addition to being inefficient, encourages governmental surveillance of private correspondence.  Pending abolition, we call for an end to the monopoly system and for allowing free competition in all aspects of postal service.”
  • “We oppose all personal and corporate income taxation, including capital gains taxes.”
  • “We support the eventual repeal of all taxation.”
  • “As an interim measure, all criminal and civil sanctions against tax evasion should be terminated immediately.”
  • “We support repeal of all laws which impede the ability of any person to find employment, such as minimum wage laws.”
  • “We advocate the complete separation of education and State.  Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”
  • “We condemn compulsory education laws … and we call for the immediate repeal of such laws.”
  • “We support the repeal of all taxes on the income or property of private schools, whether profit or non-profit.”
  • “We support the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
  • “We support abolition of the Department of Energy.”
  • “We call for the dissolution of all government agencies concerned with transportation, including the Department of Transportation.”
  • “We demand the return of America’s railroad system to private ownership. We call for the privatization of the public roads and national highway system.”
  • “We specifically oppose laws requiring an individual to buy or use so-called “self-protection” equipment such as safety belts, air bags, or crash helmets.”
  • “We advocate the abolition of the Federal Aviation Administration.”
  • “We advocate the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration.”
  • “We support an end to all subsidies for child-bearing built into our present laws, including all welfare plans and the provision of tax-supported services for children.”
  • “We oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and ‘aid to the poor’ programs. All these government programs are privacy-invading, paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. The proper source of help for such persons is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.”
  • “We call for the privatization of the inland waterways, and of the distribution system that brings water to industry, agriculture and households.”
  • “We call for the repeal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.”
  • “We call for the abolition of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.”
  • “We support the repeal of all state usury laws.”

The Koch brothers want to repeal every major piece of legislation that levels the playing field or protects the middle class, the elderly, children, the sick, and the most vulnerable in this country, and thanks to Citizens United  and McCutcheon, they can spend unlimited amounts of money to buy the American government they want.

They’ve realized that the Libertarian party can’t deliver their particular version of “liberty”–but properly funded, they hope the GOP can.

They may be right.

 

If You Wonder Why I’m Always in a Bad Mood…

Here are a few of the things that make me want to go to bed and pull the covers over my head. (H/T to Juanita Jean and the World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor).

Furious parents and citizens of Oklahoma took to the streets early Thursday, protesting against Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos.  Protesters allege the show is blatantly promoting an anti-Creationist agenda and is ‘standing against the Judeo-Christian moors and values of the Saddleback Township community and others nationwide.”

The fact that they can’t spell “mores” is the least of it…The fact that they can’t tell the difference between science and religion is infinitely depressing.

And another “Christian” heard from, this time from Virginia.

Virginia GOP state delegate and congressional candidate Bob Marshall is standing by his claim that disabled children are God’s punishment for women who have an abortion. “Nature takes its vengeance on subsequent children,” Marshall said in 2010. “It’s a special punishment, Christians would suggest.”

I don’t know about you, but in my opinion, the kind of God who would get back at “sinful” women by punishing innocent children really doesn’t seem worth worshipping…

Impressively crazy as those entrants are, South Carolina isn’t about to give up its hopes of winning the All-batshit competition.

On Thursday, a Senate committee in South Carolina voted to expand the state’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law to approve the use of deadly force to protect a fetus. The proposal would grant pregnant women protection from prosecution if they were defending their “unborn children,” defined as “the offspring of human beings from conception until birth.”

At least they didn’t vote to arm each fetus. They must be libruls…

South Carolina’s legislature is also having a heated debate over a proposal–triggered by a third-grader who is clearly more scientifically literate than many S.C. lawmakers–to name the wooly mammoth the “State Fossil.”

Sen. Kevin Bryant, a pharmacist and self-described born-again Christian who has compared President Obama with Osama bin Laden, voted to sustain a veto by Governor Nikki Haley of funding for a rape crisis center, and called climate change a “hoax,” proposed amending the bill to include three verses from the Book of Genesis detailing God’s creation of the Earth and its living inhabitants—including mammoths.

The proposal has subsequently been bogged down as legislators debate the additional language.

Meanwhile, Dispatches from the Culture Wars reports that the Louisiana legislature wants to pass a law making the King James Version of the Bible the official state book, and Miami-Dade County in Florida is closing all the bathrooms in polling places. And then there’s this.

And Indiana Governor Mike Pence really thinks he could be President.

We’re doomed. Really.

 

Necessary Distinctions

I’ve spent a fair amount of time on this blog criticizing corporate interests–Big Oil, the Kochs, all the mega-corporations evading taxes by any means arguably lawful, and others of that ilk. But a recent story reminded me that markets often exert powerful pressure for good, and not just because competition tends to drive down prices and make goods and services affordable. The vast majority of businesses operate in competitive markets that reward good behavior as well as low prices.

A good example is the fight for equal rights for GLBT citizens. Business has been in the forefront of that fight.

The link in the first paragraph is to an article about Chik-fil-A, which is furiously backpedaling from the anti-gay remarks made last year by its founder and CEO. While it would be nice if that retreat was the result of some sort of moral epiphany, the truth is that it has been forced by the realities of the market. (As one consultant recently wrote,  ”There are few more treacherous actions a CEO can take than to make derogatory comments about gay men and lesbians or to be publicly exposed for funding anti-gay causes.”)

Chick-fil-A’s socially conservative agenda, which formerly led the company to donate millions to charitable groups opposed to gay marriage, has been tempered. This, just as the company aims to quickly expand into Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Southern hospitality must give way to urban reality as the 1,800 store chain moves to compete with big city success stories like McDonald’s, Panera Bread and Chipotle.

Homophobia, racism, anti-Semetism and the like are bad for business. That lesson has been learned by hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs, middle-managers and HR folks–and along the way, many of them have become true believers in the value of valuing diversity. Their advocacy, in turn, has moved the entire culture in a more inclusive direction.

For every asshole who is buying politicians and squirreling profits away in the Cayman Islands, there are twenty companies genuinely making America a better place–by treating GLBT people fairly, by becoming more environmentally conscious, by adopting local schools or supporting civic and charitable causes.

We need to rein in the bad actors, but we also need to appreciate the good guys. Even the guys who are only being good because that’s what the market rewards.