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 new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of Americaby Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.
The executive producer of Masterpiece says Jane Austen works a lot better on screen than Hemingway does.
For 44 years, PBS’s Masterpiece franchise has brought high-end Britain TV programs to American audiences. While the ultra-successful Downton Abbey comes from an original screenplay, many of Masterpiece’s shows over the years have been adapted from great works of literature. And the vast majority of those great works of literature, unsurprisingly, have been British.
But every so often, an American novel—like James Agee’s A Death in the Family or Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark—has been turned into a Masterpiece. On Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Rebecca Eaton, the longtime executive producer of Masterpiece, said she wished that the program had tackled more U.S. authors over the years. “The reasons that we haven't are twofold,” she said. “One is money, the second is money. And the third is money. Also, the dark nature of American literature, which is something to think about for a moment."
How a re-creation of its most famous battle helped erase the meaning of the Civil War.
"No person should die without seeing this cyclorama," declared a Boston man in 1885. "It's a duty they owe to their country." Paul Philippoteaux's lifelike depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg was much more than a painting. It re-created the battlefield with such painstaking fidelity, and created an illusion so enveloping, that many visitors felt as if they were actually there.
For all its verisimilitude, though, the painting failed to capture the deeper truths of the Civil War. It showed the two armies in lavish detail, but not the clash of ideals that impelled them onto the battlefield. Its stunning rendition of a battle utterly divorced from context appealed to a nation as eager to remember the valor of those who fought as it was to forget the purpose of their fight. Its version of the conflict proved so alluring, in fact, that it changed the way America remembered the Civil War.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
The meaning of the Confederate flag is best discerned in the words of those who bore it.
This afternoon, in announcing her support for removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley asserted that killer Dylann Roof had “a sick and twisted view of the flag” which did not reflect “the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it.” If the governor meant that very few of the flag’s supporters believe in mass murder, she is surely right. But on the question of whose view of the Confederate Flag is more twisted, she is almost certainly wrong.
Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.