The first thought that crossed my mind, reading about the embarrassing leak of emails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia--a leak that revealed their efforts to suppress inconvenient or complicating data and discredit anyone who questioned their data or results--was that they must not have gotten the memo about discretion in email writing. The one about never putting anything in an email that you don't want to see on a Times Square billboard.
But beyond that, the incident raises some interesting questions about the impact of divisive political debate on its participants--even those tasked with getting us the data that's supposed to lie at the calm center, or eye, of whatever storms are swirling around it.
Climate scientists have faced a more complicated challenge than many of their fellow scientists, from the get-go. Discover a new quasar, and everyone says "cool!" Discover something changing on our own planet ... especially something that appears to be caused or heightened by human activity, and you're likely to find yourself--and your data--in the middle of a political firestorm.
In the 1990s, I wrote a book on what we'd learned about the universe and Earth from NASA's scientific satellites. And in the course of my research, scientist after scientist in the "Earth Science" field, as NASA was then calling it, told of feeling like a political football, with pressures, abrupt budget boosts and cuts, and accusations of incorrect data and conclusions coming at them from both sides of the political spectrum.
"In a sense," I wrote, "support for funding any NASA project is affected by national priorities. But the Earth Science research results themselves were more likely to be used as a basis for regulation or legislation than space science results and therefore, as the scientists relate, were more often attacked by both sides of any related policy debate, particularly with regard to environmental issues. This link to legislation or regulation gave Earth Science projects an additional element of complexity that Space Science project typically did not have."
Frustration among the researchers was growing, even in the mid-1990s. And in recent years, incidents like the highly publicized attempts by a young political appointee to censor the work and public comments of Jim Hansen, NASA's chief climate scientist, have only aggravated that situation.
At the time, Hansen argued that it was essential for him to be able to speak freely and publicly about his research because, as a New York Times article quoted him as saying, "public concern is probably the only thing capable of overcoming the special interests that have obfuscated the topic."
None of which excuses the behavior--the massaging or limiting access to data, or nasty attempts to dismiss or discredit anyone who questioned that data--that the East Anglia emails revealed. Not only did the scientists lose sight of what was supposed to be their highest calling--a search not for data to support any given conclusion, but a search for the truth, whatever it might be--they also did grievous damage to the very cause they were trying to defend. Now all the scientific data is likely to have less credibility in the public sphere--especially among moderate skeptics--and it will be even more difficult for scientists to have their words believed, or to regain that lost stature and trust.
But in a column in the Science Times earlier this week, John Tierney characterized the roots of the scientists' behavior as "smug groupthink." Maybe. But I can't help but wonder if the roots might lie not in smugness, but in an embattled bunker mentality developed over too many years of attacks on their data and its import.
In an earlier piece on this site, I wrote about the tendency of people to hold tight to opinions even in the face of contradictory evidence--a phenomenon known as "motivated reasoning." And perhaps there was a bit of that going on, as well. But I also know--both from observation and through personal experience--that humans who feel cornered or overly embattled become almost irrationally defensive. Wild animals do, too, I suppose, so that shouldn't surprise anybody.
But if someone is pushed by an opponent to a point where they feel as if a concession on a single point will create an "aha!" breach in the fortress wall that will lead almost immediately to the annihilation of their whole argument--legitimately or through misrepresentation, oversimplification or sheer volume--they're likely to rigidly deny any critique, question, or possibility of ambiguity, even if it's reasonable. Consider, for example, the rigid lines held by both sides of the abortion debate about where, exactly, "life" begins.
Perhaps later, in a less contentious environment, individuals might acknowledge the complexities and uncertainties of whatever issue is at stake. But not while under attack--or, unfortunately, while trying to advocate for action or policy change. Forceful advocacy, after all, is much tougher to accomplish--especially in a sound bite world--if you acknowledge complexity.
Some people, of course, aren't all that concerned about complexity or truth, as long as they get what they want. But it's also true that the more entrenched one side gets, the less likely it is that anyone on the other side will concede even legitimate points of complexity or middle ground. And the less likely it is that any real progress will be made toward understanding, truth, or a reasonable solution.
Perhaps the scientists had become so attached to their models and conclusions that being unquestionably and completely right trumped their interest in delving deeper into the mysteries of the planet. It happens, sometimes. But it's also possible that if they'd felt they had a safer, saner middle ground in which to hold considered, open discussion on a complex issue, more honest...and more productive...results would have ensued.
The American republic was long safeguarded by settled norms, now shattered by the rise of Donald Trump.
A long time ago, more than 20 years in fact, the Wall Street Journal published a powerful, eloquent editorial, simply headlined: “No Guardrails.”
In our time, the United States suffers every day of the week because there are now so many marginalized people among us who don't understand the rules, who don't think that rules of personal or civil conduct apply to them, who have no notion of self-control.
Twenty years later, that same newspaper is edging toward open advocacy in favor of Donald Trump, the least self-controlled major-party candidate for high office in the history of the republic. And as he forged his path to the nomination, he snapped through seven different guardrails, revealing how brittle the norms that safeguard the American republic had grown.
Interbreeding with our fellow hominins appears to have helped humans survive harsh climates.
Early human history was a promiscuous affair. As modern humans began to spread out of Africa roughly 50,000 years ago, they encountered other species that looked remarkably like them—the Neanderthals and Denisovans, two groups of archaic humans that shared an ancestor with us roughly 600,000 years earlier. This motley mix of humans coexisted in Europe for at least 2,500 years, and we now know that they interbred, leaving a lasting legacy in our DNA. The DNA of non-Africans is made up of roughly 1 to 2 percent Neanderthal DNA, and some Asian and Oceanic island populations have as much as 6 percent Denisovan DNA.
Science says lasting relationships come down to—you guessed it—kindness and generosity.
Every day in June, the most popular wedding month of the year, about 13,000 American couples will say “I do,” committing to a lifelong relationship that will be full of friendship, joy, and love that will carry them forward to their final days on this earth.
Except, of course, it doesn’t work out that way for most people. The majority of marriages fail, either ending in divorce and separation or devolving into bitterness and dysfunction. Of all the people who get married, only three in ten remain in healthy, happy marriages, as psychologist Ty Tashiro points out in his book The Science of Happily Ever After, which was published earlier this year.
Social scientists first started studying marriages by observing them in action in the 1970s in response to a crisis: Married couples were divorcing at unprecedented rates. Worried about the impact these divorces would have on the children of the broken marriages, psychologists decided to cast their scientific net on couples, bringing them into the lab to observe them and determine what the ingredients of a healthy, lasting relationship were. Was each unhappy family unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy claimed, or did the miserable marriages all share something toxic in common?
Outrage over transgender bathroom use is just the beginning of a long conflict over what it means to be men and women.
In April, the state of Mississippi did something unusual. It made the definition of man and woman a matter of law: “Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”
The Magnolia state is not alone in grappling with the meaning of gender and sex. This spring, after North Carolina’s legislature ordered public agencies and local school boards to allow people to use only public bathrooms that correspond to their biological sex at birth, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it is suing the state. A similar bathroom bill was passed and vetoed earlier this spring in South Dakota. And the people of Washington will vote on a bathrooms ballot initiative in November.
Oregon, one of the whitest states in the union, also has one of the most generous safety nets. Is that a coincidence or something more troubling?
SALEM, Oregon—In much of the country, poor people are finding that there are fewer and fewer government benefits available to help them stay afloat. But here in this progressive corner of the Northwest, the poor can access an extensive system of state-sponsored supports and services.
In Oregon, a higher share of poor families is on welfare (now called TANF, or Temporary Aid to Needy Families) than in most states. The state has some of the highest food-stamp uptake in the country. It subsidizes childcare for working parents, asking the poorest of them to contribute as little as $27 a month. It helps people get off of welfare by linking them to employment and paying their wages for up to six months, and then allows them to continue to receive food stamps as they transition to higher wages. Families can be on welfare for up to 60 months, as opposed to 24 months in many other states, and once the parents are cut off due to time limits, their children can still continue to receive aid.
A real-time chronicle of Donald Trump’s unpresidential statements.
People will look back on this era in our history, to see what was known about Donald Trump while Americans were deciding whether to choose him as president. Here’s a running chronicle from James Fallows on the ways in which Trump has been unpresidential in an unprecedented way, and of the evidence available to voters as they make their choice. (If you’d like to flag examples to include, please let us know.)
He lives near San Francisco, makes more than $50,000 per year, and is voting for the billionaire to fight against political correctness.
For several days, I’ve been corresponding with a 22-year-old Donald Trump supporter. He is white, has a bachelor’s degree, and earns $50,000 to $60,000 per year.
He lives near San Francisco.
“I recently became engaged to my Asian fiancée who is making roughly 3 times what I make, and I am completely supportive of her and proud she is doing so well,” he wrote. “We’ve both benefitted a lot from globalization. We are young, urban, and have a happy future planned. We seem molded to be perfect young Hillary supporters,” he observed, “but we're not. In 2016, we're both going for Trump.”
At first, we discussed Bill Clinton.
Last week, I wrote an article asking why Trump supporters aren’t bothered that their candidate called Clinton a shameful abuser of women who may well be a rapist. After all, Trump used to insist that Clinton was a victim of unfair treatment during his sex scandals. Either Trump spent years defending a man that he believed to be a sexual predator, even welcoming him as a guest at his wedding, or Trump is now cynically exploiting a rape allegation that he believes to be false.
For 50 years, Bassick High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut has been neglected and underfunded—despite being just a few miles from extreme wealth.
BRIDGEPORT, Conn.—The inequalities that afflict Connecticut’s largest city have been evident since 1961, when the veteran journalist Nancy Hendrick wrote a blistering column in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald.
“[F]or quite a few years now not enough people in Washington have cared what's happening here—and in a hundred other Bridgeports across the country,” she wrote. “What frustrates us is that in this crowded, unplanned, unlovely city, there is so much to be done that no one can tell where to start.”
Later that week, The Connecticut Post reported that when state educators came to Bridgeport to evaluate Bassick High School, they praised the teachers but balked at the city’s lack of financial support—noting that students were forced to pay for their own books, science equipment, globes, and maps.
Why do reality television’s most popular stars so uncannily resemble the heroines of the 19th-century writer’s work?
One of the more unconventional fairytales of our time involves a brilliant schemer, famous almost entirely for her physical attributes, who finds herself a single mother after her partner abruptly departs. Intent on bettering her situation, the woman pursues the wealthy and eligible son of a noted family, several members of whom she’s already intimately involved with. His relatives panic. But the man remains besotted with the woman, whose meticulous plotting and social savvy make him ever more intent on proposing marriage to her.
The person in question is, obviously, Blac Chyna. She’s also Susan Vernon, the antiheroine at the center of one of Jane Austen’s earliest works, Lady Susan. Their resemblance on the face of it might seem completely absurd: Blac Chyna, born Angela Renée White in Washington, D.C. in 1988, is a model and former exotic dancer best known for her romantic relationship with the rapper Tyga, her friendship with the reality-TV star Kim Kardashian, and the complications that have ensued (currently being televised on Keeping Up With the Kardashians) when Tyga started dating Kim’s sister and Chyna became pregnant with Kim’s brother’s baby. Lady Susan Vernon is a fictional character created by Austen in 1794 or so—an English widow in her mid-to-late 30s who idles away her hours in the stately homes of her aristocratic acquaintances and is described as possessing “an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliance, and grace.”
A new report estimates nearly 46 million people live in contemporary slavery, more than half of them in five countries.
This year, researchers surveyed residents of 15 states in India and asked them what it is like to live in conditions of contemporary slavery—the term used to describe human trafficking, forced labor, sexual exploitation, and other forms of illegal enslavement in the 21st century.
“I was physically and sexually assaulted when I was working in the field. I had also threat on my life and on my family,” said one unnamed person who was in bonded labor, a type of exploitation in which people are forced to work to repay debt, real or assumed. Another person, who was made a street beggar, said: “Though I am begging I am not paid a single amount. I have to deposit all to them. I am deprived of food and good sleep.”