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.
A mix of patriotic balladeers and apolitical acts will take the stage on Thursday and Friday.
It is not true, as a lot of commentary would have it, that Donald Trump’s inauguration will feature “no stars.” Some of the entertainers who have signed on to play have, in fact, built their success on entertaining millions of people. But it is true that what’s considered “the A-list” will be conspicuously absent, as will be acts from other lists: The B-Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute group, backed out from an unofficial inaugural party after outcry; Broadway singer Jennifer Holliday reneged from the main concert event.
The mix of entertainers lined up for Thursday’s “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” on the National Mall and Friday’s swearing-in ceremony represents a hodgepodge of ideology and expediency. In a savvy MTV essay about Trump’s national-anthem singer Jackie Evancho, Doreen St. Félix argued that booking the 16-year-old America’s Got Talent runner up was “a matter of scavenging, and then gilding over the spoils”—a description that could apply across the lineup given the many headlines about Trump’s team getting turned down by celebrities then saying that not having famous people is a good thing. But in its relative lack of glitz, and in its coalition of performers well familiar to state-fair stages, this week’s bill may inadvertently achieve the stated inaugural goal of projecting an image not of Trump but of the people who elected him.
Why Nixon's former lawyer John Dean worries Trump could be one of the most corrupt presidents ever—and get away with it
Sometime early last fall, John Dean says he began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves. “I’m not somebody who remembers the details of dreams,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles. “I just know that they were so bad that I’d force myself awake and out of bed just to get away from them.”
Few people are more intimately acquainted than Dean with the consequences of an American presidency gone awry. As White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, he was a key figure in the Watergate saga—participating in, and then helping to expose, the most iconic political scandal in modern U.S. history. In the decades since then, Dean has parlayed that resume line into something of a franchise, penning several books and countless columns on the theme of presidential abuses of power.
The president-elect’s lawyers have explained why they don’t think he’ll violate the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause—but their arguments fall apart under closer scrutiny.
Last week, President-elect Donald Trump’s lawyers issued a brief, largely unnoticed memo defending Trump’s plan to “separate” himself from his businesses. We believe that memo arbitrarily limits itself to a small portion of the conflicts it purports to address, and even there, presents claims that depart from precedent and common sense. Trump can convince a lot of people of a lot of things—but neither he nor his lawyers can explain away the ethics train wreck that will soon crash into the Oval Office.
It’sbeenwidelyacknowledgedthat, when Trump swears the Oath of Office, he will stand in violation of the Constitution’s foreign-emoluments clause. The emoluments clause forbids any “Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States]” from accepting any “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” (unless Congress explicitly consents).
When it comes to basic policy questions such as the minimum wage, introductory economics can be more misleading than it is helpful.
In a rich, post-industrial society, where most people walk around with supercomputers in their pockets and a person can have virtually anything delivered to his or her doorstep overnight, it seems wrong that people who work should have to live in poverty. Yet in America, there are more than ten million members of the working poor: people in the workforce whose household income is below the poverty line. Looking around, it isn’t hard to understand why. The two most common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson and cashier. Eight million people have one of those two jobs, which typically pay about $9–$10 per hour. It’s hard to make ends meet on such meager wages. A few years ago, McDonald’s was embarrassed by the revelation that its internal help line was recommending that even a full-time restaurant employee apply for various forms of public assistance.
The Russian leader tries to claim the role of senior partner in relationship with the U.S.
You have to feel bad for the Moldovan president. The newly elected Igor Dodon had traveled to Moscow to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin for the first Russian-Moldovan bilateral meeting in nine years. Yet here he was, standing side by side with Putin, his hero and model for emulation, at a regal-looking press conference and some reporter has to go and ask about the prostitutes.
“You haven’t yet commented on the report that, allegedly, we or in Russia have been collecting kompromat on Donald Trump, including during his visit to Moscow, as if he were having fun with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel,” said the reporter with the pro-Kremlin LifeNews. “Is that true? Have you seen these files, these videos, these tapes?”
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
Some Democrats, most notably Representative John Lewis, have labeled Donald Trump with the same epithet applied to his two immediate predecessors.
When was the last time America had a “legitimate” president?
You’d have to go back a ways to find a unanimous choice. Certainly not Donald Trump. Representative John Lewis, the civil-rights icon, has sparked a fury by saying, “I don't see this president-elect as a legitimate president.” Had Hillary Clinton won, she would not have fit the bill, either: Trump said repeatedly during the campaign that she should not have been allowed to run. Certainly not Barack Obama. Many opponents—none of them more prominent than Trump, yet again—argued, falsely and preposterously, that he was not even eligible to stand for the presidency because he had not been born in the United States. And certainly not George W. Bush, whom many Democrats viewed as illegitimate for several reasons: his popular-vote loss; questions over the final count in Florida; the fact that the Supreme Court effectively decided the election on a party-line vote.
Surprise remarks by the president-elect, which depart from decades of U.S. policy, sent American currency into a tumble.
On Wednesday morning, currencies in emerging markets across Asia started to rise: The Chinese yuan and the Thai bhat hit two-month highs, while Taiwan’s dollar reached a three-month peak, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, the value of the U.S. dollar had dropped 1.3 percent on Tuesday, to its lowest point in a month.
Those searching for an explanation didn’t have to look very hard. Over the weekend, President-elect Donald Trump delivered some remarks to The Wall Street Journal that took many by surprise. In response to a question about trade with China, Trump declared that the U.S. dollar is “too strong.” He added, “Our companies can’t compete with [China] now because our currency is too strong. And it’s killing us.”
Expanded school choice is a continuation of forced self-determination.
In recent weeks, pundits and scholars have bemoaned the privatization of public education that is likely to occur if Betsy DeVos is confirmed as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education. Democracy Now!, for instance, billed DeVos as “Public (School) Enemy No. 1.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement described her as “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education.” At her confirmation hearing Tuesday evening, Democratic senators grilled her about her track record promoting private control of public education and demanded, to little avail, that she would commit to keeping public-school dollars in public schools.
How America’s best and brightest once again steered the country to failure
They were the best and the brightest. But, most of all, they believed they were right. Although the scale of disaster was considerably different, the same that was said of those who oversaw foreign policy under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could be said of the Obama administration.
These were academics, intellectuals, and technocrats who were not only very smart; they took pride in being practical, grounded in reality, and wedded to facts. After the supposed anti-intellectualism and ideological rigidity of the George W. Bush administration, many of us welcomed the prospect of a president who was cerebral and professorial. Even those sympathetic to President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy instincts, however, will agree that it didn’t quite go as planned.