Defending Science

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Scores of independent scientific advisors to the EPA were recently told that their membership on the Board of Scientific Counselors would not be renewed in August. The move seems like part of the Trump Administration’s efforts to quash the dialogue on climate change, an unsurprising move given the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA along with Trump’s own rhetoric during the presidential campaign. Unsurprising, but alarming.

From the moment Donald Trump took office, the White House website removed information on climate change. Even though a consensus of scientists agrees that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming and that the warming is largely due to human activity, Republicans have stubbornly refused to address the issue. Recently, Energy Secretary Rick Perry (not exactly a rocket scientist) denied the correlation between global warming and human actions. It’s as if a group of Republicans were standing in the rain and insisting there was a drought.

The politicization of science is not new.  The season finale of Genius, the story of Albert Einstein, depicts Jewish scientists being dismissed from the prestigious Prussian Academy and books by Jewish scientists such as Einstein being burned in a massive fire by Nazi soldiers. The series also demonstrates Einstein’s outspoken objections to his discoveries being used to create weapons of mass destruction.

Throughout history, political powers have interfered with scientific discovery that did not advance their agenda, or that conflicted with their beliefs. Galileo is a perfect example of how politics (and, to a degree, religion) can affect the reception of new scientific ideas.

The ability of scientists to work independently of political agendas is vital to discovery and progress. Nowadays, the issue of the safety and efficacy of vaccines has become a political football. So has research on climate change. Meanwhile, an ice melt the size of Texas has been discovered in Antarctica. Sea levels are rising, and global weather patterns are being disrupted, with potential for devastating complications.

It’s time to allow scientific inquiry to inform our political decisions and not the reverse.

 

What’s Really Going on At College Campuses?

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3CC1A18D00000578-4182824-image-a-52_1486039078314Much is being made in the media about violent protests against conservative firebrands such as Milo Yiannopoulis and Ann Coulter being invited to speak at Berkeley and other college campuses. It is being billed as a growing intolerance of free speech on the part of college students.

But I believe something else is going on here. A recent Los Angeles Times article detailed how radical fringe groups on both the left and right converged on the UC Berkeley campus to take advantage of the protests occurring there. These groups show up at scheduled peaceful protests and marches in order to incite violence and get media coverage. (“For many at Berkeley rally, it wasn’t really about Trump or free speech: They came to make trouble,” Paige St. John, The Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2017)

Administrators are then forced to shut down events in order to protect the students, thus giving conservatives cause to cry foul on the grounds of free speech infringement. Similar skirmishes occurred shortly after the election of Donald Trump. These troublemakers notably cover their faces and wear black. And they give peaceful protesters, who also have free speech rights, a bad name.

I realize there have been cases of college students themselves shutting down speaking engagements, such as the appearance of Black Lives Matter critic Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna College. It should be noted that CMC President Hiram Chodosh stated in no uncertain terms that the college is a place for honest inquiry and exploration of ideas, and the blocking of campus buildings would not be tolerated. Furthermore, MacDonald’s speech did take place and was streamed so that those blocked from the venue could listen to her remarks.

I must confess that I’m disturbed by the types of speakers that conservative student groups have been inviting to their colleges and universities. With the exception of MacDonald, who does have some valid research to back up her opinions, the speakers that have been the focus of so much media attention are hate-spewing extremists such as the aforementioned Coulter and Yiannopoulis. Or alternatively, we have Charles Murray, whose dubious “scholarship” has posited that blacks have lower IQs than whites. If I were a college student, I would certainly protest the appearance of such figures on my campus.

Yet I do believe firmly in our First Amendment and the right of people to say what they wish, no matter how hateful, to their chosen audience. I am old enough to remember the famous 1977 case in which a small group of Neo-Nazis demanded the right to march through the largely Jewish enclave of Skokie, Illinois. The case ignited a national furor, and the Nazis’ rights were defended by the ACLU. Although the group was successful in gaining a permit to march through Skokie, they ultimately decided on a Chicago march instead. The positive thing to come out of the incident was the creation of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. (“Remembering the Nazis in Skokie,” Geoffrey R. Stone, Huffington Post, May 20, 2009, updated May 25, 2011)

But let’s not kid ourselves. College students are not becoming intolerant of “alternative viewpoints” so much as protesting the continued demeaning of people based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation. They have a right, on their own campuses where they are paying tuition, to express their disapproval of speakers to whom they object – if they do so in a peaceful manner that does not infringe on the rights of those who wish to hear the speaker. It is a challenge for college administrations to assure that these disagreements are allowed to play out peacefully and without outside interference from fringe elements. But it’s a challenge they must rise to for the safety and freedom of all.

 

No End to Partisan Warfare

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It didn’t take long for conservatives in the media to blame liberals for the horrific shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and others at an Alexandria, Virginia, park. Admittedly, there’s little doubt that the shootings were politically motivated. The shooter,  a Bernie Sanders supporter,  had been posting rants against Republicans and Trump for months. Furthermore, he asked a representative at the park, where Congressional personnel were practicing for a friendly game of baseball, whether those on the field were Democrats or Republicans.

Despite those facts, members of both parties on Capitol Hill, as well as President Trump himself, called for unity and prayers for the victims of the horrendous attack. There was a call for Democrats and Republicans to put aside their differences out of respect for Rep. Scalise, other government officials, and law enforcement officers injured in the shootout.

But in the news media, Sean Hannity immediately blamed the incident on the left for their hateful rhetoric against Trump and his Republican administration. Other media personalities and newspaper columnists echoed Hannity’s sentiments. All of them conveniently ignored the upsurge in racist violence that occurred after Donald Trump’s election in November.

My first reaction to news of the shooting was that this is how far partisan politics has descended. It was bad enough to see figures of Barack Obama being lynched or burned in effigy on the one side, a fake likeness of Donald Trump’s bloodied and severed head on the other. But partisanship has gotten so bad that it has incited people to actual violence and physical harm of others.

There has to be a way to get beyond the hatred and blame that has characterized American politics in the past decade. We can strongly, and even stridently, disagree with each other without resorting to name-calling, mockery, and outright assault.

But here’s the rub: Such flagrancy makes headlines. All the major news outlets and now the world wide web of sensationalism have a stake in encouraging anger and outrage. They make for good ratings. Early on in the Republican primaries, the media loved Donald Trump. His outrageous statements and behavior were constantly being covered by the likes of CNN, whose management admitted that their ratings skyrocketed with the Trump coverage. The American thirst for drama has brought out such horrible characters as Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones, who spew their hate to an adoring audience. On the left are less famous characters who took to Twitter and actually celebrated the fact that Scalise, a supposed racist, was shot.

The Congressional baseball game, an event for charity, will go on as planned tonight, no doubt with enhanced security. The fact is that the Democrats and Republicans who work together on Capitol Hill are actually often good friends. Let’s hope their good example, as evidenced by their bipartisan remarks today and their coming together for America’s favorite pastime, can actually prevail and start to reduce the divisiveness that is making partisan politics not just unpleasant, but downright dangerous.

It’s All Relative

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I’m currently watching a fascinating show on the National Geographic channel entitled Genius, a biography of the great physicist Albert Einstein. Never having had a particularly scientific type of mind, I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy learning about Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries. For instance, I enjoyed seeing how Einstein’s brain starts forming ideas about relativity while watching his time piece in a tedious math class.

Einstein proved that time is not absolute and that our perception of time moving forward is an illusion. I’m not sure I completely understand his ideas, but I do enjoy thinking about relativity in the simple terms in which he famously explained it. An hour spent with a pretty girl, he said, seems but a minute while a minute spent sitting on a hot stove would seem like an hour.

I was reminded of that idea on a recent walk in my neighborhood. Up ahead of me was a young woman pushing a stroller with a baby inside. The scene looked idyllic: a young mother with all the time in the world to care for and enjoy her child. But I know better. I was that young mother once. When my first child was born, I was beside myself with stress and worry. Every single task seemed difficult and new and challenging, and I was not sure I was doing any of it right. Had she had enough poops that day? Did she have a slight fever? Was she too warm, too cold, hungry, tired? And why would she not stop crying?

From my vantage point as the mother of four grown children, it seems so easy just to have one child, a child who can’t go anywhere or do much of anything without my say so, a child who can’t stay out past curfew or sass back or ask to do things I’m not ready to let her do. When my children were young, the days would crawl by at a snail’s pace. Even though they were perfectly clean, I would still give my kids a daily bath just to pass the time. Nowadays, I blink, and months have gone by while my teens and twenty somethings move ahead at the speed of light.

The one constant for me as a parent is how much I worry about my kids. I think that’s what makes grandparents so much more relaxed around their grandchildren. They have a slight distance that allows them to be calmer, more playful, and less stressed.

This idea was borne out for me recently when I listened to a fascinating NPR podcast called Invisibilia. The episode “The Problem With the Solution” describes the way mental illness is managed in a small Belgian town called Geel (pronounced “hail”). In Geel, people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia live with ordinary families and are considered “boarders.” While there is a hospital nearby and doctors help people manage their medications, no one in Geel tries to fix the mentally ill. They are simply allowed to be the way they are.

The reporters from Invisibilia discovered an important fact through learning about the town of Geel. These same victims of mental illness faired much worse when living with their own families. Indeed, one of Geel’s residents had a mentally ill son herself, and she described how hard it was to live with his behavior. What psychologists have discovered is that when people care too much, they are determined to fix the problems their loved ones have. On the other hand, non-related hosts or neighbors of the mentally ill have a detachment that allows them to accept these people the way the are. In this way, “it’s all relative” takes on a different meaning.

The great Albert Einstein certainly had his fair share of family drama, including a wife who suffered from depression and a son who attempted suicide. As a Jew, he was endangered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He also objected to the use of scientific discovery to create weapons of mass destruction. But he looked at the world in such an endlessly fascinated way. He was convinced that observing nature was the way to solve all the mysteries of the universe. And he had a great determination to be the one to do so.

As the summer days go by, I will remind myself about the deceptive nature of time and do my best to slow it down and enjoy its passing.

 

 

 

Hamilton

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I’ve finally seen it. After months and months of hearing and reading all the hype about the theater sensation of the new millennium, I finally went to see Hamilton.

My husband had surprised me on Mother’s Day with tickets to the play at Chicago’s Private Bank Theater. Our seats were fantastic – dead center and so close I could see the actors spit. My hubby took a photo of me with the stage as a backdrop and sent it to our kids with the quip: “Mom in the third row center for Hamilton: What a waste!”

See, I had been somewhat indifferent to the frenzy that had surrounded the opening of Hamilton. For one thing, the subject matter did not really interest me. A play about the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of our less vaunted Founding Fathers? Yawn. I also was not sure about the rap and hip hop infused nature of the music. I love all the traditional old musicals, such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, etc. So I didn’t think I would enjoy a more modern twist.

Furthermore, people’s insistence that I just had to see the play, that it was the greatest thing ever, made me stubborn about not wanting to join the bandwagon. With so much hype, I just couldn’t imagine enjoying it to the level at which everyone seemed to regard it. Indeed, as the play opened, the audience roared with expectation, and I wondered whether they were just responding to the hype or had already spent thousands of dollars on repeat viewings of the pricey play.

I really enjoyed the play. I found the music and lyrics creative and fun, at turns funny and plaintive. The choreography and the characters, the costumes, the comic appearances of a snarky King George: all were well done. And I loved that the closing number was an emotional and subdued one rather than the bombastic, glittery finales of most Broadway musicals.

Yet I wouldn’t say Hamilton is the best musical I have ever seen. While I got the gist of the theme as being about an improbable hero, I found the story less than compelling. I realize that the author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was working within the limits of real history. And I did appreciate the underlying messages of inclusion and of fighting for one’s ideals – particularly in the current political climate that exists in the U.S.

I think my enjoyment was hampered in part by all the hype. The way the audience reacted to certain characters appearing on the stage was over the top. It was as if they were all in on a joke to which I wasn’t privy. I felt more like I was at a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show than at a Broadway musical. And the underlying insistence from everyone I knew that I just had to love it put me off a bit.

Still, I’m glad I was able to see the musical sensation of a generation. I have no doubt that in many ways, Lin-Manuel has opened the genre of the Broadway musical to further invention and creativity. Perhaps he will also be responsible for keeping the genre alive for the millennials coming of age in the next decades.

Have you seen Hamilton? I’d love to know what you think.

Summer Reading List

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With the waning of the school year and the lengthening of days comes a desire to relax and destress. What better way to do so than with a good book? Here are some recommendations for your 2017 summer reading list.

  1. The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. Kwan writes hilariously about the exploits of the very rich in Singapore and mainland China. His first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, exploded on the scene in 2013 and spawned the equally brilliant continuation of the series, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, the latter of which just came out in time for my own beach reading. So do start the trilogy before Crazy Rich Asians, the movie, comes out.
  2. The Bruno, Chief of Police series. Author Martin Walker is a serious man. But his mystery novels about the Perigord region in France are delightful excursions into the wine, cuisine, and idiosyncrasies of small town France – all with a mystery thrown in to keep the plot humming.
  3. The Cormoran Strike thrillers by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. When Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym in 2013, her cover was blown and the novel became an instant best seller. But deservedly so. Her deeply flawed but somehow lovable detective Strike and his assistant Robin solve troubling and sometimes gruesome murders in The Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent thrillers The Silkworm and Career of Evil. If you are looking for Harry Potteresque fantasy, these are not for you. But for heart pounding thrills and intriguing characters, you can’t go wrong with this series.

While I love book series, there are also some great stand alone novels to consider adding to your list.

4. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. My husband complained that I laughed out loud too frequently while reading this novel during a beach vacation. Bridget’s haplessness, terrible track record with men, and general knack for embarrassing herself help make her an endearingly flawed character any modern woman can relate to.

5. The Saving Graces by Patricia Gaffney. I picked this book up off of my sister’s coffee table some years ago and could not put it down. It’s a story of female friendship and the hardships such friends can help us get through.

6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Semple lampoons upper middle class life in Seattle, Washington, as well as the corporate culture of Microsoft, while at the same time giving us an eccentric but sympathetic middle-aged character in Bernadette, an artist and mother who is coming apart at the seams. Semple has written a newer novel that I have not yet read titled Today Will Be Different. Indeed.

Lest readers think these works lean toward women-only interests, I must also reiterate my fondness for all things Harlan Coben. Start with Deal Breaker, and make your way through the entire Myron Bolitar oeuvre in one summer.

And for male middle-aged angst, look no further than the novels of Jim Kokoris. My favorite is still his very first novel, The Rich Part of Life, about a widower and Civil War re-enactor who wins the lottery.

So get thee to a bookstore or a library and pick up some fun summer reading. It’s the perfect escape.